Safety First

A group called Community for Safety First has been advocating support for the city’s proposed bond measure.

After months of contentious debate, a parking agreement forged this week between Ketchum Mayor Neil Bradshaw and the Wood River Community YMCA will be presented to the Ketchum City Council for approval on Monday.

The agreement between the parties could have big consequences: The Y is now offering full support for the city’s proposal to build a new fire station on vacant city land to the north, next to the Northwood Place residential development.

If the amendment to the Y’s parking agreement gets the green light, Ketchum will provide the facility with at least 150 parking spaces, 100 of those on site. But that pledge rests upon the passage of the city’s $11.5 million fire station bond vote on Tuesday, Nov. 5.

“If [the bond] doesn’t pass, I’d imagine we’d be back at the drawing board,” YMCA Board Chairman John Dondero said in a Wednesday interview. “But if the amendment and the bond go through, that will be a big relief. We’ll have the freedom to move forward with an expansion that we’ve been contemplating for a long time, and we’ll finally be able to focus on doing positive things for our community.”

Under Wednesday’s agreement, the Y would continue to have access to parking on the city-owned “Park-and-Ride” lot along Saddle Road.

Assuming the fire station bond goes through and the station is built, the Y would continue to use lots directly north and south of the building, with 50 additional spots available on Lewis Street, Saddle Road and Warm Springs Road.

If the YMCA expands in the future, the total increases to 200 spaces, with 150 of those on site.

The agreement also affirms that the YMCA cannot officially reserve any parking spots—they are for public use. And, if the bond does not pass, both parties will need to restart negotiations.

Given that provision, it’s not surprising the Y is now doing a 180 from its bond stance just a week ago, when YMCA CEO Jason Shearer rebuked the measure in City Hall.

“Essential to a good planning process, the city must accommodate our basic needs,” he told city councilors at the time. “Absent those essential components, the Y cannot and will not support the bond.”

The message now, blasted out via social media on Wednesday, comes with a photo of children beside a fire truck.

“Months of thoughtful discussion between the two parties has culminated in an agreement to welcome the fire department as a new neighbor helping ensure the safety for everyone!” the flyer says. “We support the fire station bond!”

A timeline

Since opening its doors in 2007, the YMCA has always relied on nearby public parking.

That’s especially crucial for Ketchum’s growing senior demographic, Y affiliates say.

“It’s very important to have parking spots in close proximity to the building, because so many of our guests are not able to easily walk long distances across the snow,” Dondero said.

According to Dondero, parking on the city-owned lot wasn’t an issue until about a year and a half ago. The tension started when YMCA and city objectives began to collide. While the Y looked ahead to expansion—something guaranteed in the 99-year lease it signed with the city in 2005—Ketchum officials mulled developing new projects adjacent to the facility. To YMCA board members, that meant the lot was going to be consumed by city development, and the Y would lose its adjacent spaces.

Thus began a long, winding road of negotiations between the board members, the city and their respective attorneys.

Early on, the YMCA asked the city to restrict any future development to either the north or south side of the site, leaving the other for public parking.

But in an Oct. 22 interview, Bradshaw said that the Y didn’t have jurisdiction to make that decision. The request, he said, had created legal issues that prevented the city from signing on.

“We can’t give private entities such as the Y the discretion to restrict development, and we can’t say we’ll need to ask the YMCA for permission to build—it’s city-owned land,” Bradshaw said.

That request was pulled from the draft over the weekend. Once removed, an agreement began to take shape—and, come Tuesday evening, it became clear that the Y was comfortable with the city’s proposed amendment.

Around 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Dondero estimated that 14 out of 20 board members had voted in favor of the new agreement. By the following afternoon, it was a unanimous “yes.”

“To sum up the agreement, nothing will change,” Bradshaw said on Tuesday night. “The remaining [Park-and-Ride] will stay as parking, and the city is happy to accommodate the Y during its expansion.

“The YMCA response has been very encouraging, and I’m pleased that both parties’ needs are being met.”

The bond

Ketchum’s East Avenue fire station, along with the surrounding City Hall and police headquarters, has failed safety inspections for almost 20 years. More than a decade ago, the station was found unable to withstand damage from an earthquake or fire, and efforts to mitigate asbestos contamination and the buildup of toxic fumes have been underway since 2001.

In 2005, former Mayor Randy Hall implored the city to address its faulty infrastructure; in 2006 and 2007, the McGrath Consulting Group found the building aging poorly, and asbestos-removal crews were hired in 2010.

Ironically, according to the McGrath report, a bedroom in the firefighter sleeping quarters was not up to fire code.

“Significant renovation to the existing building is not recommended, but rather replacement is needed,” the report stated.

Several Ketchum firefighters have seconded these observations, noting that the station’s structural deficits and exhaust fumes have put their health and safety at risk.

Retired Ketchum Fire Captain Tom McLean, for example, said the station’s deterioration has been troublesome.

“There are cracks in the walls, abandoned staircases—the building is bad,” McLean said. “The insulation has dropped down, and diesel fuel has condensed in dark spots on the wall.”

Ketchum Fire Captain Tory Frank agreed. Right now, all the department’s gear is stored alongside its vehicles—a major problem, she said.

“You can see it in the trays we have in the landing—if you reach into those, you’re going to pull out soot,” she said. “There is a concern of being exposed to carcinogens.”

When Ketchum’s $11.5 million fire station bond advanced through the City Council on Sept. 3—securing a spot on the Nov. 5 ballot—Ketchum’s first responders learned the station’s long-running issues could come to an end.

It wasn’t the first time they’d heard that, though.

In May 2016, former Mayor Nina Jonas placed a $23 million bond measure before voters to fund a new fire station, police station and city hall. Her kill-three-birds-with-one-stone approach acutely failed, however, with 75 percent of residents voting “no.”

On Tuesday, Ketchum’s less-costly $11.5 million bond for a new station will get its vote. If a two-thirds majority checks “yes,” construction on the facility would begin in May 2020 and could wrap up the following summer.

For supporters of the bond, it comes down to safety.

Proponents say the Park-and-Ride location is more than ideal, with access to main city arteries such as state Highway 75 and Warm Springs Road.

“We’re concerned about the safety of our community and our firefighters in the present location,” said Ketchum resident Gary Hoffman, one of the individuals behind the “Back The Bond” billboards in town.

Pushback against the bond seems to be centered around tax concerns.

If passed, the $11.5 million bond will trigger a $20.52 increase in property taxes per $100,000 value, which boils down to $147.13 annually for a $717,000 property, Ketchum’s average home value. That figure would increase to $205.20 on a property of $1 million.

“We absolutely need a new city hall and police and fire stations, but not solely on the backs of the taxpayer,” Hall, the former mayor, wrote in a guest opinion published Wednesday in the Idaho Mountain Express.

Compared to when the bond was first introduced, Bradshaw said more residents seem to be OK with the tax hike—a change he attributed to ongoing educational efforts.

“I think it’s well recognized and understood that there is a need for a new station,” he said.

According to blueprints from Cole Architects, the planned 14,500-square-foot facility would provide adequate sleeping quarters and energy-efficient lighting, insulation and plumbing designs.

It would also include four large drive-through bays to accommodate the wider turns of ladder trucks—an upgrade from the current 6,000-square-foot fire station, where drive-through bays are too narrow to allow easy truck and ambulance access.

“At one point, we had part of the roof collapse on top of ambulances,” McLean said. “Now, most new ambulance drivers have to take off their mirrors because the bays are too narrow.”

If the bond passes, Ketchum firefighters will have a new home by 2021. Though the station will more likely than not be built on the Saddle Road lot, the city still has wiggle-room to choose another location.

“A better way to say it is that the bond is not tied to the location,” Assistant City Administrator Lisa Enourato said.

If the bond fails, Ketchum City Hall and the Police Department will relocate to a building on Fifth Street by 2021, as planned. The Fire Department, though, will still need a new location and may have to move to a temporary facility until financing is available.

The question is if Ketchum residents are prepared to shoulder an increase in property taxes this time around.

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