Fire board says it’s negotiating with city on contract

by Heidi Desch
Whitefish Pilot | June 24, 2020 1:00 AM

The Whitefish Fire Service Area board has yet to vote on how it plans to handle its contract for fire service with the City of Whitefish, but the board says it has been meeting with the city.

During its regular meeting on June 16, the rural board noted that it had scheduled a meeting with city officials for the following evening to negotiate.

Board member Dennis Oliver said the board has begun negotiations, but is still looking at its options after an initial meeting with the city to answer questions related to the contact.

“We have to look down the road,” he said. “I can give them a check, but what will I get in 15 years?”

The city, in offering a new five-year contract for the rural area, sent a proposal in March to the rural board proposing to increase the district’s payment to $325,000 in 2021 and then to $426,000 in 2026. The rural district’s most recent payment was $296,500.

In turn, the rural board in May sent out a letter to households saying it was considering whether to renew its contact with the city that expires in June 2021 or operate its own volunteer fire department.

The rural board has until the end of June to make a decision on whether to renew its contract.

Last week for the third meeting in a row, several residents from the rural area showed up to say they are in favor of extending the rural district’s contract and many have said they are willing to pay increase in taxes to make that happen.

The board has said it has heard from about 100 people in person and received about 300 emails or letters on the matter from the roughly 3,200 property owners in the district. Most of the comments, the board said, favor renewing or negotiating the city contract.

“We got a pretty good cross section of responses that said we want you to negotiate and that’s what we’re going to try to do,” Oliver said.

Oliver added that he has concerns that even if the rural board pays more to the city it won’t result in additional fire service.

“If we give the city 95% of our budget and then we maintain our building, will the city magically build another fire hall — no,” he said.

Even if rural fire halls are constructed, Oliver questioned if those would house a fire truck, but have no volunteers or staff operating out of those buildings.

“How beneficial is it if it’s a storage building,” he said.

Whitefish Fire Chief Joe Page said his department has budgeted for a feasibility study that will suggest ways to plan for the future of the city fire service, along with the rural fire service.

“We’d like to continue the contract with [the rural board],” he said.

Personally, Page said, he’d would like to see five more rural fire stations constructed around Whitefish to be staffed with volunteers and potentially through a residency program that would allow for volunteers to live at the fire hall in return for service.

City Manager Dana Smith says the city wants to negotiate the contract with the rural board.

City officials say that the proposed payment schedule is reflective of the services already being received — about 40% of fire calls each year come from the rural district, but its most recent payment was only 25% of the city fire department’s current $1.17 million budget.

The major sticking point for the board appears to be an increase in the payment the city is seeking, with the board saying five years ago it already increased household rates from $90 to $144.

The board has said that if it were to pay the increased cost to the city that would deplete its reserves of $1 million, thus leaving it unable to start its own volunteer department later.

The board has said it would need 10 to 15 volunteers to start its own department, along with a paid fire chief.

The rural fire area is about 86 square miles in size outside Whitefish city limits.