What started as a drive to improve public safety in the northern Wood River Valley devolved into fist-pounding, backbiting and finger-pointing during a meeting of the Sun Valley City Council last Thursday afternoon.
And, it might reach a point of alarm for homeowners in Ketchum on Friday morning, because a decades-long agreement between the Ketchum Rural Fire Protection District and the city of Ketchum hangs in the balance.
The Ketchum Rural board of commissioners has called a special meeting for Friday morning at 8 a.m. at Ketchum City Hall to discuss the future of its $327,000 contract with the city, which has been in place since 1957.
That agreement and one with the Blaine County Ambulance District have been essential in securing an Insurance Services Office rating of 3 for Ketchum homeowners (on a 1-10 scale, with 1 being the highest), thus keeping homeowners insurance rates low. The Ketchum Fire Department provides the staff to Ketchum Rural and to the Ambulance District.
“There is a potential downgrade to our ISO rating due to the loss of the Rural District apparatus and water; however, ISO makes that determination,” Ketchum spokeswoman Lisa Enourato stated in an email Tuesday.
Sun Valley Mayor Peter Hendricks and Ketchum Mayor Neil Bradshaw are invited to attend the meeting, Commissioner Jed Gray said in an interview last Friday. Gray said no decision would be made on March 15. The Rural District’s boundaries extend from Greenhorn up to Galena Lodge, excepting the cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley.
“We want to weigh our options,” Gray said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do at this point in time, until we’re able to talk amongst ourselves. It’s not our intention to leave Ketchum out in the cold.”
Following the Ketchum City Council’s rejection of a contract for services with Sun Valley on March 4, Ketchum Rural sent a request for proposals to Sun Valley, Public Safety Director Walt Femling said Thursday.
“They see strong leadership coming out of Sun Valley,” Femling said of the commissioners. “They see that we have a state-of-the-art facility in Elkhorn. We have apparatus in all of our bays that are top-of-the-line equipment. They have said to me numerous times how impressed they are with our young chief, Taan Robrahn. Because of those things, less than 24 hours after that Ketchum council meeting, an RFP landed on my desk.”
Femling also raised the possibility that Sun Valley should change its mutual aid agreement with Ketchum if the cities don’t share future costs of vehicles. He asked if Sun Valley should charge Ketchum “for going down there and putting out Ketchum fires” similar to the way Sun Valley charges the U.S. Forest Service for assistance.
Under mutual aid, one jurisdiction agrees to provide its resources to another in certain circumstances, such as responding to major emergencies.
“We should also discuss mutual aid,” Femling said. “Should there be a change? This is bringing up a lot of issues.”
On Thursday, Ketchum Mayor Neil Bradshaw spoke to the Sun Valley City Council but did not tell them to reject the Ketchum Rural RFP, and did not speak out against changes to the mutual aid agreement.
“There seems to be some appetite to provide another way to provide what I call unified services,” Bradshaw said. “I’m committed to being a good neighbor. I’m committed to providing our fair share in any partnership that we choose to pursue in the future.”
Hendricks, at times banging his fist on the council table, voiced derision at comments made during a Ketchum City Council meeting on March 4 about how Ketchum, a larger city, would have its fire and police departments subsumed by Sun Valley under the contract for services.
“We’re just little Sun Valley,” Hendricks said. “We will have to answer the RFP for the Ketchum Rural. When we find what their decision is on that, then I think it would be opportune to open conversations with big Ketchum.”
He said Sun Valley could not continue the collective bargaining agreement Ketchum has with the union representing professional firefighters, if consolidation occurred through a joint-powers agreement. He said the union, which formed in 2009, has driven up the costs of providing fire and emergency medical service in Ketchum.
“We cannot do a JPA and do the collective bargaining,” Hendricks said. “It’s costing them a fortune. We will not have it here in the city of Sun Valley.”
At the meeting, Ketchum firefighters disputed that claim.
Ketchum’s general fund contributed $483,000 toward fire and EMS in fiscal 2018, less than 2 percent of its overall budget of $29.2 million. The Fire Department’s budget was $2.03 million, and relied on $1,097,493 from the Ambulance District contract and $318,688 from the Ketchum Rural contract. In 2006-07, prior to the union’s formation, the city’s general fund spent $664,931 on fire and EMS, the Ambulance District contract contributed $739,267 and the Ketchum Rural contract contributed $192,164, for a total $1,596,362.
Hendricks said the Ketchum City Council would regret its vote on March 4.
“We can be saving a hell of a lot of money,” he said. “We cannot do it if the collective bargaining agreement stays the same way it is. I suggest that [the Ketchum City Council] look long and hard at it. They have made a judgment, in my opinion, that will come back to haunt them for a long, long time because it’s just not sustainable.”
Sun Valley City Council members said they should move forward from the contract for services, because the Ketchum council rejected it.
The council voted to terminate its agreement with Ketchum that provided Femling and Fire Chief Taan Robrahn to run the Ketchum Fire Department on a part-time basis. Councilwoman Michelle Griffith said she wanted to press forward on consolidation and finding an amenable structure.
“Restructuring, it’s stressful and it’s awkward,” Griffith said. “And the longer it goes on, the worse it gets. Sometimes the guppy does swallow the whale. It’s not always the little one that gets swallowed into the big one.”
On Friday, Ketchum Rural Fire Protection District Commissioner Gray said no decisions have been made, but the commissioners need to discuss the Rural District’s future with the mayors on March 15. He said it was possible that Ketchum Rural would send another RFP to the city of Ketchum.
Speaking personally, he said he supports the creation of a stand-alone fire district that would include Ketchum, Sun Valley, Ketchum Rural and the Ambulance District and would cut out political influence from the city councils and focus on improving public safety services for north valley residents.
“We don’t really have to do anything,” he said. “What’s the best thing for the citizens of the upper valley? That’s really what the conversations should be about.”
Ketchum Rural owns two stations, two engines, two brush engines and two tankers, which city residents get credit for on their ISO ratings because the city and Ketchum Rural are operationally consolidated. The city of Ketchum owns a 15-year-old fire engine and a 30-year-old, partly functioning aerial tower.
Gray said he was aware of the ramifications of Ketchum Rural leaving the city of Ketchum. He said mistrust and neglect has built up between the two entities for years.
Because of their operational consolidation, each shared the services of former Ketchum Fire Chief Mike Elle. However, Gray said the city administration did not inform the Rural District that Elle was departing as fire chief until the day his employment ended last fall.
“When they fired the last fire chief, we found out the day they were going to fire him,” Gray said. “The city of Ketchum hasn’t done a darn thing for their fire department since 2004. There’s no quick fix. The city of Ketchum doesn’t have the money they need to upgrade their equipment. That hasn’t been a focus of the city. Ketchum’s been able to lean on us.”