For the first time in its decades-long history, the Ketchum Rural Fire Protection District will have a new contract service provider in 2019.
And for the first time since 1957, the city of Ketchum may not be involved.
That’s the result of a 2-1 vote cast by the Fire District’s board of commissioners during a meeting Tuesday morning at Ketchum City Hall. Commissioners Earl Engelmann and Chris Stephens voted in favor of providing the district’s $300,000 contract to the city of Sun Valley. Commissioner Jed Gray voted against it.
The contract will go to the Sun Valley City Council next at a special meeting set for Monday, May 20, at Sun Valley City Hall. If it’s approved, the agreement is scheduled to begin Oct. 1.
The Ketchum City Council will have the next four months to figure out what should happen next. Its contracts with the Fire District started in 1957, but the most recent, signed in November 2016, is set to terminate on June 28. The commissioners want to extend it through Sept. 30, though the Ketchum City Council would have to agree.
The Fire District commissioners left the door open to Ketchum’s participation in the next contract, but only through consolidation with the city of Sun Valley and the Fire District.
In early March, the Ketchum City Council voted to reject a contract for services that would have entailed dissolving its fire department and having all of the firefighters reapply for their jobs with the city of Sun Valley. That proposal has been revived—with some modifications related to oversight—in subsequent meetings devoted to the future of the Ketchum Fire Department.
“It’s a great deal for the Ketchum Rural District,” Commissioner Chris Stephens said of contracting with Sun Valley. “This is a giant step toward consolidation.”
However, Commissioner Jed Gray said the board should wait and receive a full contract proposal from Ketchum. City Councilwoman Courtney Hamilton said the city never received a request for proposals from the Fire District, which sent one to Sun Valley in early March.
“The city of Ketchum deserves a chance,” Gray said. “In a marriage, you’ve got to work out your problems.”
Ketchum faces the imminent loss of $325,000 in funding it receives from the Fire District contract, which pays for four full-time firefighters out of a staff of 11. The city’s budget for the Fire Department in fiscal 2019 is $2.1 million, and the city also receives $1.1 million from the Blaine County Ambulance District.
Without those four positions, the department won’t be able to meet the staffing requirements necessary for the Ambulance District.
The Ketchum City Council recently approved purchasing a new fire truck called a quint, which is a combination of a ladder truck and pumper.
The new truck will help stave off a downgrade in the city’s Insurance Services Office rating that would result from losing the Fire District contract. The Fire District owns two stations, two engines, two brush engines and two tankers. The city of Ketchum has a station, an ill-functioning aerial tower from 1988 and a fire engine acquired in 2004.
Ketchum has an ISO rating of 3 (on a 1-10 scale, with 1 being the highest), and maintaining that will also require maintaining adequate staffing, Assistant Chief Tom Ancona has said in recent public meetings. The ratings are crucial factors in determining homeowners’ insurance premiums.
On Tuesday, Sun Valley Public Safety Director Walt Femling said his city’s proposal for the Fire District contract was predicated on two things—developing the Fire District into its own department and sharing paid-on-call volunteers among the Fire District, Ketchum and Sun Valley.
Femling said the paid-on-call personnel should be paid at the same rate no matter if they work for Ketchum, Sun Valley or Ketchum Rural.
He pledged to offer the Fire District an assistant chief who would be solely devoted to managing its operations and earning $116,850, a full-time firefighter/EMT earning $70,562 and funding for the clerk, who works for the district currently at $65,186 annually. The proposal included $37,402 to pay for covering more than 200 12-hour shift assist days and $10,000 for administration.
The Sun Valley Fire Department has a ladder truck purchased in 2013, a structure engine purchased in 2008, a 1996 structure engine, a tender and three wildland engines. It recently renovated the Elkhorn Fire Station to include sleeping quarters. The Sun Valley Fire Department would handle all the Fire District’s calls.
Femling told the commissioners that contracting with Sun Valley could be a first step in consolidation of north valley fire and emergency medical services. He said that could include setting up a fire district and determining what the appropriate mill-levy rate for property taxes should be.
“None of this happens unless you take the first step,” he said. “Sun Valley needs a trigger.”
Commissioner Earl Engelmann said Sun Valley presented the best option, and that consolidation needed to happen.
“We need to start acting as if we are consolidated,” Engelmann said. “The Rural Fire District needs to have the leadership of their own chief. There’s no reason why we can’t start on this today.”
Gray asked if the contract with Sun Valley simply meant hiring them to find a fire chief for the Fire District. It has shared the services of the Ketchum fire chief for decades, and the Ketchum Fire Department has provided all the staffing for the district.
Gray said the district could get a chief and staff of paid-on-call volunteers by itself.
Ketchum offered to have Assistant Chief Tom Ancona work with the Fire District and a $25,000 discount on the current contract while it pursues a bond measure for a new fire station and the purchase of the new truck.
“It seems like we’re hiring Sun Valley to find a chief for us,” Gray said.
Stephens replied that it offered a much bigger opportunity. He said the current $325,000 contract with Ketchum has provided it with a “profit center” so the city didn’t have to invest as much of its own funds into the Fire Department while withholding reimbursements paid by the federal government for using Fire District equipment in wildland fire duties.
“We’re seeing all new stuff,” Stephens said of the Sun Valley proposal. “That’s $325,000 worth of stuff.”