City of Red Lodge contemplates fire department merger

City of Red Lodge contemplates fire department merger By Eleanor Guerrero CCN Senior Reporter Red Lodge Mayor Ed Williams is in favor of merging the town’s fire department with the Rural Fire District fire department. He said it makes sense. “It’s financially advantageous to both entities.” Both are located in the building at Hwy 212 and Hwy 78, although the city rents space from the district. The finances are at times overlapping with mutual aid agreements. They want to produce clarity and streamline the finances. Williams explained for example, if the district buys consumable items like copy paper, with shared facilities, there is difficulty in providing 100 percent accounting for such items. There is also a lot of overlap. “The city fire chief is the rural district fire chief,” he explained. Right now, there is a city council (the Mayor) and the rural district board of trustees that oversee the fire department. If merged, the only oversight would be by the Fire District Board of Trustees, “and a city council member (if a Red Lodge resident) could be elected to that board,” added Forrest Sanderson, Community Development Director. The Fire District is not the whole county, but a portion and is presided over by the board, “like the school district has its own board” he explained. Its territory is generally east to west, running from the Wyoming border, between Belfry and Bearceek, Red Lodge, to the top of the Pass and all the way west to Luther. It does not encompass Roberts which has its own fire district. Williams looked at the creation of the Ambulance District and said that went very smoothly. Another model would be West Yellowstone which merged its fire department with the rural district. “Other districts had a lot of difficulties with the city annexing major developments and tax bases for the counties leaving the counties with unpaid debt obligations,” said Williams. Montana law now protects rural districts so that is not a concern. Also, those areas were very urbanized areas outside the city.” Most importantly, it should not involve major costs; no major increase is expected. “Fire departments are expensive,” said Williams. “I don’t think it will make any monetary difference in what we spend. It should be what it is now, about 25 mills (city tax rate) or $175,000 (annually) and a little resort tax that will go towards new equipment.” Williams and Sanderson had nothing but praise for the quality of service from both fire departments and the ambulance district. “It is unbelievable,” said Sanderson. Willliams agreed, “The ambulance district and fire department do an incredible job. The response time…the competency of paid and volunteer for both the fire department and the ambulance districts are very high. We are very lucky for a community of this size.” “For a long time, those of us on the council in the budget process felt it would work more efficiently under one roof,” he added. Tom Kuntz agreed. “Right now I have three hats: Chief of the City Fire Department, the Rural Fire District and the Ambulance District. Each has separate budgets and separate oversight. A merger would improve efficiency, increase service reduce redundancy and save costs. It’s better for everybody involved.” Should a merger occur, Kuntz said, the city fire department would merge with the rural fire district but the ambulance district would then contract with the merged fire district. “We are already functionally consolidated in the way we operate,” explained Kuntz. “The same people respond to the fire call as the ambulance call.” Recently the City Council was presented with a Draft Interlocal Agreement to consider and make comments.   The stated objective was to get this in place by June 30, 2014 as that was the beginning of the new Fiscal Year for both entities.  The Ambulance District is also considering a similar Interlocal Agreement. There would be a public process and input is critical to Williams. “I’d think that a petition process (to affect annexation to the District) would most likely be required with 40% land mass and 40% tax value approval required in Red Lodge,” Williams contemplated. “It will clarify a lot of the financial issues. The transparency is important. To the best of my knowledge there has been no substantive discussion by those who will be impacted by consolidation our fire services.  Until this happens I am not anxious to have this process move forward.” Currently, Red Lodge is considering contracting with the Fire District to provide fire protection to the City. Williams said this approach is provided in Montana law and provides a process for making a decision.  “Given how important fire protection is to our community both near and long term I want the residents of our community to understand and to have input into what is being considered,” he said. Williams wants residents to decide what is best for them. If the city joins the Fire District, he wants all those in the District to be on the same sound financial footing. He said people can request a copy of the draft and see his comments. He concluded, “We like the idea; we think it is good for our residents. We’re going to move with it in a reasonable manner.” Williams also touched upon the ongoing police chief search. “We have nearly 30 applicants. We hope to cull that down to 12-15 by April 5. When that number is narrowed to 3 candidates that we believe will fit the bill for Red Lodge we will open the evening formally to the public to come and meet them.” Williams said he is very concerned about having a good fit with the community.