Photo By DENNIS MYERS On his way to City Hall one day last week, Reno Mayor Bob Cashell stopped for coffee and chatted with citizens.

Consolidation of fire services in the Truckee Meadows lasted just 12 years.

The combined services began operating in 2000 and it will come to an end on July 1, unless the county has a dramatic change of heart.

Reno Mayor Bob Cashell was still trying to keep consolidation together as this was written, but even he seemed to be losing heart toward the end.

“Well, I was, but—some of the stuff they want to do caused me problems,” he said.

The Washoe County Commission voted 4 to 1 on June 28, 2011, to break away from consolidated fire services. In the year since then, city officials have tried to get the county to reconsider that decision, with little effect.

Cashell said the city worked with unions—he praises them for being flexible and working out differences among themselves—and came up with a plan for keeping all stations open with four-person crews, and it was rejected by the county. Washoe County Commission chair John Breternitz said that solution would have lasted for only a year and then taken the county into the red. Cashell responded that it would have given the two entities a year to work on the problem.

Cashell: “If we went to a joint powers agreement negotiation, they would all sit down at the table with us, and we would negotiate every contract we have with the fire union. And we’d have county commissioners on it, City Council on it, staffs, legal—everybody would have set down and negotiated with the union. … Then every station in Washoe County except for Sparks would have been open with four-man crews, with it set up the way it was. There would have been no tax increase, none. And then they [county officials] had a meeting, a closed door meeting, and agreed they weren’t going to do it and so they never discussed it—to the best of my knowledge—publicly or anything. They just decided no.”

Breternitz: “That’s true, because it would have worked for less than a year and then we would have gone in the red. You know, our goal is sustainability, and we can’t maintain a long-term fire service under the terms of the Reno fire contract. There was not a deal. It was one commissioner had had discussions and brought it to the county commission in a closed labor session, and we decided that we couldn’t afford that contract with that union. And therefore, there was never a deal.”

Cashell said that under the agreement, “Their [county] reserves would have actually gone up … by $1.7 million. … [I]f we’d stayed in negotiations, we could have negotiated those contracts.”

There was wide confusion, even in county ranks, at the Washoe County Commission’s determination to deconsolidate, and some officials in the end believed that it came down to ideology—the four Republicans on the commission taking advantage of hard times to inflict as much damage as possible on labor unions. That would indicate that the kind of dogmatic polarization that exists in Congress and has afflicted the Nevada Legislature is now a factor in county government, as well.

“Government consolidation is a conservative article of faith, and here we had the four Republicans opposing it,” said one county agency official.

When it became clear that the county was immovable on deconsolidation, Cashell hastened to Washington, D.C., where he met with U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, who set him up a meeting at the White House with the presidential liaison with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. When Cashell returned to Reno he had what he needed to make sure the city was not injured, financially at least, by deconsolidation—a $14 million grant that would take care of all of Reno’s needs in the transition from consolidated services.

“Every station in Reno will be open with four man crews,” Cashell said.

That also complicated prevention of deconsolidation, though. The grant is written for a city fire system and would have to be retooled to accommodate a consolidated system. Cashell is willing to go back and get that done, but it further complicates his hope of stopping deconsolidation.

Cashell pointed out that the county is having to raise taxes in the unincorporated areas, something he said would have been averted by retaining consolidation and continuing to negotiate.

Cashell: “And they’re going to raise the taxes now. They’re going to raise the taxes in their unincorporated area to make theirs work. … And they didn’t have to before.”

Breternitz: “Well, that is true and the reason for that is because Reno has been unwilling to work with us to provide the automatic aid in certain areas—Caughlin Ranch and Hidden Valley—and in turn, we would provide the beneficial automatic aid that they can’t provide to their own people in the north valleys.”

The two sides seem not to agree on the most basic things. Cashell said the city is ready to assist the county with mutual aid agreements, but so far no one has asked. Breternitz said the county has said often that it wants such agreements.

The County Commission told the sheriff to set up a fire dispatch system. It turned out that, with the sheriff’s limited resources, the county needed the city of Reno to provide county fire dispatch until the Washoe County sheriff can put together a system in a few months.

Unless Cashell somehow rolls events back, the county next week will have all stations open with three person crews and the city will have all stations open with four person crews.

Photo By DENNIS MYERS County Commission chair John Breternitz is not running for reelection, but wants fire deconsolidation as part of his legacy.

Breternitz: “All of our stations will be open at—I believe it’s 24 stations … 13 volunteer and 11 permanent, 11 of the career stations. That’s all of our stations and we have flexible staffing, so most of those stations will be three-person crews. … That’s a fact of life. When you can’t afford to have four people, you do the best you can and have three people.”

The number of people on fire crews—firefighters are barred by law from entering a home unless four crew members are on the scene—is at the heart of the dispute, but whether it is a matter of money or of anti-union sentiment is a judgment call. It sometimes appeared that the city’s good working relationship with the unions was a handicap in the eyes of county commissioners—and one of the reasons the county wanted deconsolidation. At one joint meeting of the county commission and the city council, County Commissioner David Humke said, “With all due respect, I want nothing to do with your labor agreement.” Later in the same meeting, he said, “When will the city be free of their agreement?”

Cashell: “You could tell the way Humke acted that day there was no room for negotiations.”

Unionism comes up again and again.

Cashell: “No, they thought that a lot of these [Reno] guys would quit and come to work for them or we would cut back so far that they would be able to pick them up and use them. And they are getting a few Reno guys going over. But they all got promotions, they went over as captains or they went over whatever.”

Breternitz: “Well, sure. We’re not able to pay as much as the city of Reno is paying them because of their union contract and that’s the main reason why we had to discontinue our relationship with the Reno Fire Department is because we couldn’t afford to pay the wages that they were paying their firefighters. I think many of the Reno firefighters chose not to come over to ours because they would take a decrease in pay.”

Cashell said the county is going to be stretched in serious fire fighting. He said, and Breternitz confirmed, that Caughlin Ranch will be served from Verdi and Hidden Valley—except for a two-person crew on the scene—will be served from Sun Valley. A lot of damage can be done during those travel times, and Cashell argues that it’s not the first truck on the scene that is key to firefighting.

Cashell: “Caughlin Ranch will be covered by Verdi. … That’s quite a distance, and in traffic it’ll be 10, 12 minutes for them to get there. … We got one [a fire station] on Skyline, and we got one down on Mayberry, and I’m hoping they’ll come through with a mutual aid agreement.”

Breternitz said that 98 percent of the Hidden Valley calls are non-fire calls.

Will it stick?

Still to be determined is the effect of the November election on deconsolidation. The county commission has two seats up for election and both will see replacement of incumbents. Breternitz and Larkin will both be leaving the commission. One commissioner, Kitty Jung is running for the Reno City Council in a fiercely fought race. If she is not elected to the Council, she will still have two years to run on her commission term—and she was the one vote against deconsolidation. It is conceivable that the commission will have a pro-consolidation majority after the election.

In the District One race for county commission, candidates are in agreement that deconsolidation was a mistake.

“I believe that splitting up our fire resources is dangerous and shortsighted,” said Democrat Andrew Diss.

“I think the fire deconsolidation is unfortunate and wish the city and county had worked out a way to resolve their differences prior to getting this far down the road,” said Republican Marsha Berkbigler.

So would they revisit the issue if elected, even though the county would be six months into the new operation?

Berkbigler: “Yes, I would. I believe consolidation of fire services is the best option.”

Diss: “Oh, absolutely. I’d try to get the ball rolling as soon as possible.”

Candidates in the District Four race did not respond.

Cashell would certainly want to reopen the topic: “Well, I’m going to have four more councilmen, four new councilmen, and they’ll have two or three county commissioners. And I think that we should sit down, because really the thing for this region is to have it consolidated, especially with Reno and Washoe County for the unincorporated area, and if we set it up right I’m pretty sure Sparks would come. But right now, I don’t blame Sparks. I’d stay 10 miles away from all this B.S.”

He is still working on trying to avert deconsolidation, though he is becoming more dispirited. He expects to make an approach to Breternitz.

“I haven’t met with John, and I owe it to him. I went out of town for a couple of days. I owe John a call, and I’ll give him a call, but from another city councilman I got word that John was still holding course on some of his stuff. And I don’t want to blow these grants. I don’t want to burn any bridges with Washington.”

Cashell said it is more difficult all the time to stop deconsolidation because the county has become more invested in it. His continued hope for keeping the consolidated system may strike some as unrealistic.

“We’ll sit down and meet with anybody and talk about seeing if we can [stop it], but once they went out and hired a fire chief, and they done these other things, promoted all these guys to captains and whatever else, I don’t know how you unwind some of it unless we all sit down and gulp it,” he said. “If they would have agreed to do what we talked about back in January or February, whenever it was, we could have solved all of it. … I wish them the best at what they’re doing. I personally don’t think that they’re doing what they should have, but they must think they do, so we can agree to disagree on that, you know what I mean? But we need to have a single fire chief. We don’t need two fire chiefs. We don’t need two of everything, and that’s what we’re going to have.”

Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...