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Rural fire district eyes split from city

| May 15, 2020 1:49 PM

The Whitefish Fire Service Area board is considering splitting from the Whitefish Fire Department to operate its own volunteer department rather than pay a proposed increase for services.

The rural fire board earlier this month sent a letter to households saying it’s considering whether to renew its contract with the City of Whitefish that expires in June 2021. The city covers fire protection for the rural fire area, which is about 86 square miles in size outside city limits, and property owners pay a fee to the rural district that service.

Requests by the Pilot for comment from the rural board went unanswered. The rural board is scheduled to meet on Tuesday, May 19, and an item on its agenda lists the contract with the city for possible discussion.

The major sticking point for the board appears to be an increase in the payment the city is requesting in negotiating a new five-year contract.

The city proposes to increase the payment to $325,000 in 2021 and then to $426,000 in 2026 — a 31% increase. City officials say that the 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 $296,500 or only 25% of the city fire department’s current $1.17 million budget.

The rural board says that five years ago its household rates already increased to $144, but the city claims that rate would not have to go up again to cover the request because the rural board is putting extra funds into a reserve account.

“Operationally, it would be easiest to continue to pay Whitefish for this much-needed service,” the board said in its letter. The board says it is concerned, however, that the increase the city has proposed is “unreasonable and not reflective of the long-term sustainable partnership.”

In response, the city last week mailed out its own letter, saying operating and equipment costs continue to rise thus making it necessary to propose an increase. The city is looking at upgrading its brush truck that responds primarily to the rural district at a cost of $50,000.

Whitefish City Manager Dana Smith says the city welcomes negotiation of the contract, noting that she met with the board on March 5, and emailed the city’s proposal on March 13, but has since had no contact from the board.

“When we began digging into the city’s financial information for the last couple years and realizing that 40 percent of the calls to the fire department came from outside the city limits, we realized that does not equal the same funding we’re receiving from them,” she said. “A few years ago they made a large increase in their membership fee, but over time they’ll still be able to cover the increase we’re proposing.”

The rural board determines the amount of reserves that are necessary for its operations, she notes.

The rural board’s letter says the option, if it doesn’t renew its contract with the city, is to establish its own fire department with a paid fire chief and 10 to 15 volunteers operating out of its rural station near the intersection of Whitefish Stage and Hodgson roads.

“We have sufficient reserve funds on hand that we can pay for start-up costs, hiring of a chief and the purchase of equipment without raising the current annual fee,” the board letter says, also that it would expect sufficient savings to be able to acquire a new fire hall west of Whitefish “in the next few years.”

A dollar amount for how much it would cost to start the volunteer department is not mentioned. However, minutes from the board’s Feb. 18 meeting details a list of fire equipment stating that it would cost $400,000 to $600,000 to start.

Whitefish Fire Chief Joe Page is skeptical the rural district can recruit enough volunteers. The city currently has about eight volunteers, and Page notes that nationwide it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find volunteers because of the physical demands and also the high level of training required for the job.

“They’re being foolish if they think they can get volunteers and still have the same quality they have now,” Page said.

Response time, Page notes, is greatly increased when firefighters aren’t present at the station. Whitefish typically has an out-the-door time of within 90 seconds, according to the department, but when additional assistance is requested the time increased up to 5 minutes from staffed stations, and up to 30 minutes from those stations with firefighters responding from home.

“It’s not about whether firefighters are volunteers, but rather whether they are at the station because that determines how fast they can respond,” Page said. “If they have to come from home or work driving to the station then that’s just not comparable. In an emergency nothing gets better with time.”

Whitefish Fire is staffed with 15 professionally paid firefighters who are cross-trained as paramedics or EMTs.

All fire departments in Flathead County operate under a mutual aid agreement responding when called to provide assistance.

Page worries that if the rural district ends its agreement, then his department will still be responding, but without being compensated.

“It concerns me that if they go off on their own, we will still be responding to their fires, but the taxpayers will be paying for the service we would be giving them for free,” Page said.

The rural board meets Tuesday, May 19 at the rural fire station, 1345 Hodgson Road, at 6:30 p.m.

The board, in its letter, says it’s taking comments on the matter until June 1 by email at jdyonwfsa@gmail.com or by mail at WFSA, P.O. Box 1311, Whitefish, MT 59937.

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