Homeowners tell rural fire board to continue contract with city

by Heidi Desch
Whitefish Pilot | May 20, 2020 1:01 PM

Homeowners in the Whitefish Fire Service Area on Tuesday emphatically told the rural fire board they want their fire service to remain with the Whitefish Fire Department, even if it means an increase to their tax bills.

About 100 people filled the Whitefish Rural Fire Station off Hodgson Road with roughly 15 people speaking in favor of retaining the rural district’s contract with the City of Whitefish over the rural district starting its own volunteer department.

Noting he is a retired firefighter himself, Ed Meek said he believes in the ability of professional firefighters and noting his home is at least 30 minutes drive from the rural fire hall meaning a lengthy response from volunteer firefighters.

“By the time you get to me, my house is gone,” he said. “The best option is for you to stay with the city.”

One man in attendance seemingly cut to the heart of the matter with a comment that drew applause from the room.

“We’re all willing to spend the money,” he said. “We want the benefit of a professional fire department.”

The rural fire board earlier 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 major sticking point for the board in renewing the city contract 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.

In negotiating a new five-year contract, the city proposes to increase the rural district’s payment to $325,000 in 2021 and then to $426,000 in 2026 — a 31% increase.

Board member Dennis Oliver said the city’s proposal didn’t sit well.

“That was something I wasn’t going take,” he said. “I want to try to manage the funds we were given to the best of my ability.”

The rural board did not vote on the matter on Tuesday saying it has until the end of June to make a decision, unless it seeks an extension of the deadline from the city.

The board plans to hold a special meeting next week for further discussion. While the board didn’t specify a date, it seemed to be looking at Tuesday, May 26 for the meeting. Agenda for meetings are posted in the window of the rural fire station off Hodgson.

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.

Whitefish City Manager Dana Smith says the city is willing to sit down with the rural board to negotiate the contract, but has not been contacted by the board since providing the city’s proposal to them on March 13.

Smith points out that even without increasing the current household rates, the rural district would generate enough funds to pay for the city contract and that the rural board determine the amount of reserves it retains.

The city says operating and equipment costs continue to rise thus making it necessary to propose an increase.

Oliver said if the rural district didn’t move to a volunteer department now the option would be gone later if it has to pay a higher fee to the city.

“We have a reserve because the board members have been frugal,” he said. “If we go into the contract with the city and then our reserves would go down so we could barely pay the bills.”

County Commissioner Phil Mitchell shared information related to the issue on behalf of the rural board, while saying he’s not a member of the board and has only been guiding them in their operations.

The rural district collects $450,000 in fees and spent $296,500 to the city last year for service. Mitchell says the rural district currently has more than $1 million in its reserve fund.

“If we continue to pay the city contract, we won’t have any reserve,” Mitchell said. “We can pay the city or take the money we have and open up or own department.”

The rural board 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.

During public comment, recently retired Columbia Falls Fire Chief Rick Hagen didn’t pull any punches in his comments regarding creating a volunteer department.

“You’re mistaken if you think you can get enough volunteers,” he said.

The Columbia Falls Fire Department serves the city and rural area around the city, it has a paid fire chief and about 35 volunteers pulling from both geographic areas.

Hagen said the Columbia Falls department relies heavily on the professional Whitefish Fire Department because of their “quick response.”

“If you come up with the magic solution to get volunteers please let Columbia Falls know,” he said. “Maybe you’ll get volunteers, but you’ll be lucky to get them to stick around longer than a year or two once they find out the requirements.”

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

Whitefish Fire Chief Joe Page has also said obtaining the necessary volunteers would be extremely difficult, and would increase the fire response time. Whitefish typically has an out-the-door time of within 90 seconds, according to the department, but that increased up to 30 minutes from those stations with firefighters responding from home. The rural board’s letter said its plan within a few years is to open another rural fire station west of Whitefish. However, Mitchell said he didn’t see how financially the rural district would be able to do that.

When asked if the rural fire board made the switch to a volunteer department, but couldn’t get enough recruits, Board Chair Mark Carlson said the district would then return to the services of the city.

The rural fire area is about 86 square miles in size outside Whitefish city limits. Property owners pay a fee to the rural district and the district makes a payment to the city for service.

The board 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.