After months of buildup, the Ketchum City Council, professional and volunteer firefighters, police officers and residents sounded off on a proposed public safety consolidation with the city of Sun Valley on Monday night.
Their verdict at Ketchum City Hall was vociferous—and unanimous—opposition to the proposal. The City Council voted 4-0 to reject a contract for services with Sun Valley.
The vote and the public outcry amounted to a stinging rebuke to a major component of Mayor Neil Bradshaw’s first-term agenda. Bradshaw, Sun Valley Mayor Peter Hendricks and Sun Valley Public Safety Director Walt Femling have devoted the past six months to a push for consolidating fire, emergency medical and police services between the two cities.
Their proposal was unveiled last week, and would have required legally dissolving the Ketchum Fire Department and nullifying Ketchum’s decades-long agreements with the Ketchum Rural Fire District and the Blaine County Ambulance District. The city would also have terminated its agreement with the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office to provide law enforcement.
Under the proposal, the city of Sun Valley would have provided public safety services in Ketchum. Ketchum employees would have had to reapply for their jobs with Sun Valley. Both cities proposed a $5.8 million budget for fiscal 2020, which would have saved Sun Valley more than $530,000 and Ketchum about $16,000.
Prior to their vote, council members expressed interest in continuing a conversation about consolidation and focusing the discussion on a joint-powers agreement with Sun Valley, Ketchum Rural, the Ambulance District and Blaine County.
Bradshaw said he would not stop working to improve the Ketchum Fire Department, and building a new station for police and fire.
“I hate it,” Bradshaw said of the condition of the Ketchum fire station in City Hall. “It can’t continue in its current form. We will have to explore another route for this consolidation. I’m encouraged by what I’ve heard tonight. I don’t want this to sit around. More studies is not the way to go.”
A standing-room-only audience packed the Ketchum City Council chambers Monday night, with more residents spilling into the hallway. Of the two dozen speakers who addressed the council, no one favored the proposed contract. Jed Gray, a commissioner for the Ketchum Rural Fire District, urged Ketchum and Sun Valley to consolidate, but later clarified his remarks to note that he believed a separate fire district would be proposed.
Many speakers criticized how Ketchum would be represented under the contract for services, and how any concerns from the Ketchum City Council, residents and employees would be addressed in Sun Valley. The contract put the mayors of Sun Valley and Ketchum as well as the Sun Valley public safety director in charge of administering it and addressing complaints.
“We get to vote for the council members and mayors,” Ketchum Fire Department Capt. Miles Canfield told the council. “What’s being proposed with this contract is to move everything to Sun Valley, where I don’t have the opportunity to vote. We have greater representation on the Mountain Rides board than we would have in a contracted emergency services department.”
Ketchum Police Chief Dave Kassner said the city should maintain its contract for law enforcement with the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office, no matter what happens with continued discussions on consolidation. He said that since the talks over consolidation began last fall, four members of the Ketchum Police Department left for new jobs elsewhere. Kassner spoke as a 32-year veteran of the Police Department.
“It’s not comfortable for me talking on this subject,” Kassner said. “I’m talking right now for the citizens of Ketchum. You’re getting the best quality of law enforcement that you’ve ever had. For the city of Ketchum’s sake, you need to maintain your contract with the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office.”
Dr. Terry O’Connor, Blaine County medical director, told the council that he does not support having the city of Sun Valley swallow the Ketchum Fire Department, and disputed Femling’s contention that consolidation would immediately improve response times in both towns. O’Connor said a joint-powers agreement warrants consideration if both cities continue to pursue consolidation.
“It would not immediately make an improvement,” O’Connor said.
Blaine County Commissioner Angenie McCleary said it’s imperative that O’Connor be involved in future discussions on consolidation.
City Councilwoman Courtney Hamilton said the process was a key point in her opposition; she expected Bradshaw to present a plan supported by a coalition including the Ambulance District, Ketchum Rural, Blaine County, the union representing professional firefighters in Ketchum and the public.
“It’s so hard for me to sit here and say this is a great idea when that’s not the case,” Hamilton said. “There is zero mention of the council in this contract. I didn’t expect what was presented last Monday. More people should have been involved in the process.”
Councilman Jim Slanetz said public support for a plan is critical, because Ketchum will need to construct a new public safety facility that will require a taxpayer-funded bond measure at an upcoming election.
“We need the support from the communities who have put in all their time,” Slanetz said. “We need the backing from the public. If we dissolve our fire department, it will be hard to go back from.”
Councilwoman Amanda Breen said she believed a JPA would be presented as the proposal for consolidation. She said Ketchum will have to gauge how interested the Sun Valley City Council and city administration are in continuing the discussion. She said she wants to continue the contract with the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office.
“We have a great contract for services,” Breen said. “Putting that under the city of Sun Valley makes no sense at all. It’s a serious conversation with Sun Valley on how dedicated they are.”
Councilman Michael David said the future of public safety in northern Blaine County will be consolidation between Ketchum and Sun Valley, but a new proposal and plan have to be developed that provide adequate oversight and fair representation from Ketchum residents.
“We have a lot of work to do moving forward,” David said. “The future is consolidation. We have to come up with a plan to actually do consolidation. We’re coming at this in an adversarial way. It just doesn’t seem right. We’re taking that away from the voters.”
At the end of the council’s deliberation, Bradshaw moved to table the item, which would end the debate without a vote on the contract with Sun Valley. Audience members, including professional firefighters in Ketchum, implored the council to register a vote on the contract.
All four voted in opposition and received a standing applause from the audience.