By Mayor Kevin Gilmore and Mayor Mike Bell
Cooperation, collaboration and regionalism in the face of shrinking municipal budgets are ideas that many elected officials have used in speeches and press conferences, but we seldom see these ideas put into action. But this week our two northwest Ohio communities passed a milestone in that action – the one year anniversary of the merging of Toledo and Ottawa Hills’ fire services. Looking back at the planning for this successful venture there are lessons we can apply to future collaborative endeavors as well as share with others who have watched our partnership and seek to replicate it.
When Ottawa Hills approached the city with this proposal Toledo was open to the idea, but we both remained unsure of how it would be received by the public. Our firefighters worked together each day thanks to an automatic mutual aid pact. Each department is staffed by skilled and highly trained professionals who deliver fire protection and emergency medical services to their respective communities. Each department was comfortable relying on each other for the same purpose when they needed back-up from a nearby ally. All that separated these two departments was an imaginary line of demarcation, referred to as municipal boundary.
As we worked through a potential partnership scenario it became evident that the citizens of Ottawa Hills could be provided professional fire protection and emergency medical assistance at a much lower cost to their budget, and the City of Toledo could benefit from an extra fire station where there was currently a geographical gap, as well as ten highly qualified firefighters to join the Toledo Fire ranks. Our two communities continue to benefit from these positive points. We should note that Ottawa Hills residents have welcomed Toledo firefighters into our community (complete with homemade pies delivered to the station during their first week). And Toledo is glad to count firefighters of the former Ottawa Hills department among our ranks.
As the first real foray into shared services in northwest Ohio, citizens in both of our communities were justifiably uncertain about the proposal. Our hope is that they have been reassured by the consistent provision of high quality, professional safety protection in both communities; dedication to a high standard of care from the Toledo Fire and Rescue Department personnel; budget savings; staff gains, and a respect for and pride in the community identity thatToledoand Ottawa Hills both hold.
We are both proud to lead the way as an example for other Ohio communities that are looking to this collaboration as a model that may be replicated in their area. We’ve had phone calls and meetings to explain how we approached this partnership and why it worked for us. And we continue to look for partnership opportunities with our neighbors to ensure that we are providing other services as efficiently and economically as possible for our citizens, but also that these potential partnerships make sense.
As we said in 2010 when these discussions began; cooperation, collaboration and regionalism are words easily tossed about, but this simple vocabulary has no value without action. In going forward with this program we took a hard look to make sure that the proposal made sense for both communities. Not all services can or should be combined, but we also should not dismiss the opportunity for partnership and service collaboration for fear of change. As budgets shrink and the demand for service holds steady, local governments have to be innovative and open new ideas to meet the needs of our citizens. Shared services can be a part of this and we are proud to be at the forefront of the initiative in northwest Ohio.
Kevin Gilmore is Mayor of the Village of Ottawa Hills. Mike Bell is Mayor of the City of Toledo.
As printed in the Toledo Blade, January 2012