Some city, county commissioners supportive of $52.5M plan to build new fire stations; some want more options

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City and county commissioners voiced general support Monday for new fire and medical stations that would cost an estimated $52.5 million, though some commissioners said they would like to see more options presented.

The construction of two new fire stations would cost $37 million and the relocation of a third would cost $15.5 million. Operation costs are estimated at $6.8 million per year. 

Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical leaders have pushed for the past few years to build new stations, citing slower response times to some hotspots in the city’s outskirts as city limits have expanded. The number of incidents LDCFM handles each year has also grown to a three-year rolling average of 14,226 in 2019-2021 from 9,265 in 2006-2008. That’s roughly a 53.5% increase.

“There’s no doubt we’re going to do it at some point. The only question is when we’re going to do it,” City Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said during Monday’s joint city and county commission meeting. “You’re gonna have to build these as we continue to go west and continue to go south.”

Vice Mayor Bart Littlejohn said he was in favor of the plan, but he was unsure how it would be paid for. 

“I just see the need,” Littlejohn said.

LDCFM currently has five fire and emergency medical stations in Lawrence and two EMS stations in Baldwin City and Eudora.

Based on current property valuations, the construction of two new stations and relocation of a third would require a roughly 8.5 mill tax increase, city Finance Director Jeremy Willmoth said. The annual operations would require an increase of about 3.32 mills in the city and 1.285 mills for county property taxes. The city’s current total mill levy is 33.367. The increase would bring it to more than 45 mills — roughly a 35% increase. 

The mill levy likely wouldn’t increase until 2025, when construction of the stations would begin, Willmoth said. 

LDCFM Division Chief Kevin Joles said there could be opportunities to colocate or form partnerships with other county and city agencies. 

City Commissioner Courtney Shipley asked whether LDCFM had considered Consolidated Fire District No. 1, which has a station near 31st and Louisiana streets. LDCFM Chief Rich Llewellyn said it was something he’d thought about, but he had not talked to that station’s chief yet. 

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City Commissioner Amber Sellers wasn’t fully in favor of adding two new stations and relocating a third. Instead, she proposed a hybrid option that would relocate or expand one station and add more equipment with a colocation.

“I do see that as an option,” Llewellyn said. “Obviously we need to talk to any affected parties before we moved in, but you know, I think any option is worth looking at.”

Douglas County Commissioner Shannon Reid agreed with Sellers.

“Maybe there’s just something a little bit more creative, right, a little bit more of a hybrid situation?” Reid said. “Because I really do appreciate the idea of colocation. I know that involves a lot of conversations and a lot of entities, but I think there’s economies of scale there.”

Commissioners also discussed putting the proposal on a ballot in November, leaning against the idea. They did not take any formal action on the plan. 

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Caroline Zimmerman (she/her) interned for The Lawrence Times in May – August 2023. She has also covered crime and public safety for the University Daily Kansan, and the Eudora City Commission for the Eudora Times.

Follow her on Twitter. Read her work for the Times at this link.

— Reporter Mackenzie Clark contributed to this article.

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