This much is certain: The Ketchum Rural Fire Protection District has pledged to cancel its existing contract with the city of Ketchum, and the board of commissioners is scheduled to take that vote Thursday morning.
But what happens after that is uncertain. Thursday’s meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. at Ketchum City Hall. The only item on the agenda is reviewing and taking action on the district’s current contract with Ketchum, Commissioner Jed Gray wrote in an email.
That will trigger a 90-day termination period so the Fire District and the cities of Sun Valley and Ketchum can decide what happens next. Ketchum Rural could create a new agreement with the city of Ketchum, or it could contract with Sun Valley.
Since 1957, Ketchum Rural has contracted with Ketchum to provide fire service in the district. The district’s boundaries stretch from Greenhorn to Galena Lodge, excepting the cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley.
The contract is worth $337,000 in fiscal 2020, and pays for 3.5 full-time employees in the Ketchum Fire Department. Ketchum Rural owns two fire stations, two engines, two brush engines and two tankers. The Ketchum Fire Department provides staffing for Ketchum Rural and for the Blaine County Ambulance District.
The Fire District commissioners met Friday morning at Ketchum City Hall to discuss the future of their contract. Eliminating the contract with Ketchum and moving the agreement to Sun Valley risks a downgrade to Ketchum homeowners’ insurance ratings.
Long-simmering issues between Ketchum Rural and the city of Ketchum emerged during the three-hour hearing. About 40 people, mainly professional firefighters and paid-on-call volunteers, attended.
“The city [of Ketchum] needs to know that we’re very serious about terminating our contract and we’re going to do it,” Commissioner Earl Engelmann said. “This contract’s going to go away. The atmosphere in Ketchum has become somewhat toxic. The city needs to do some soul-searching. The union needs to do some soul-searching.”
The commissioners voiced support for continuing discussions with Ketchum and Sun Valley during the 90-day termination period. They spoke favorably of continuing to discuss consolidation of fire and emergency medical services among the cities, the Fire District and the Ambulance District.
Blaine County Commissioners Angenie McCleary and Jacob Greenberg voiced opposition to cancelling the contract, because they questioned if Ketchum and Sun Valley could provide the required number of personnel for the Ambulance District if Ketchum lost the $337,000.
“I’m interested in a solid response from the city of Ketchum,” Gray said. “The best result can come from a whole new look. We’ll have 90 days to do that. Do we meld this all into a three-way agreement?”
Commissioner Chris Stephens reviewed years of perceived poor behavior by the Ketchum city administration.
He said the Fire District has limited financial resources but manages them well. In addition to the amount of the contract with Ketchum, it typically has about $125,000, which pays for equipment costs and other necessary expenditures. It has purchased land and built fire stations with the support of bond measures from the district’s tax base.
Stephens said Ketchum neglected both the McGrath Consulting reports from 2007 and 2013, which identified deficiencies in the Fire Department and the Ketchum fire station.
“None of those things have happened in that report,” he said. “Here’s 10 years, 12 years, none of that’s happened. What’s going to make it happen?”
He said the city administration has pushed Ketchum Rural to increase its contract to pay for additional costs in the Fire Department, even as the city’s general fund contributions shrank or remained flat.
Stephens said a breaking point occurred in the past 18 months, when Ketchum said it was going to eliminate the fire clerk that works with the Fire District. That caused the district to exceed its budget for the first time in Stephens’ decades of tenure on the board.
He said he’s been in the Ketchum fire station when the city’s lone fire engine has been down for repairs, and the Fire District equipment is the only available to respond to calls.
“Their fire engines went to zero that day,” he said.
Stephens also expressed frustration that Ketchum Rural equipment went out to wildland fire duties, and the city of Ketchum received reimbursement from the federal government that it deposited into its general fund.
“That’s not cool,” he said. “It’s not legal. That needs to change. It’s a tipping point. We can’t do it anymore.”
Sun Valley Public Safety Director Walt Femling started the meeting by reviewing his city’s proposal to the Fire District. The commissioners issued a request for proposals to Sun Valley last week, and Femling reviewed the response Friday. Sun Valley Mayor Peter Hendricks joined Femling at the meeting but did not address the commissioners.
Femling said going with Sun Valley could provide an immediate savings of $27,000 to the Fire District. He said the city would offer a full-time assistant chief devoted solely to Ketchum Rural; the district has split the services of the Ketchum fire chief in the past.
Femling said the city would devote a fire clerk solely to the Fire District, and said Ketchum’s collective bargaining agreement with its fire union has resulted in excessive paid time off. He said some full-time employees receive more than two months of paid time off.
Accordingly, he said Ketchum was on track to exceed its $135,000 budget for paid-on-call volunteers this year. He said the cost might top $200,000 this year in Ketchum.
Femling said the changeover to Sun Valley could happen in August on an expedited timeline, but the Fire District commissioners favored waiting.
Ketchum Fire Lt. Lara McLean, the union’s secretary-treasurer, disputed Femling’s assertions about the paid-on-call budget and the excessive paid time off. She said the Fire Department has been down a position due to the retirement of Capt. Tom McLean last year, which was vacant until the start of 2019. The fiscal year began Oct. 1.
She said the union’s track record of negotiating with Ketchum hasn’t yielded cushy results.
“There are holes in the foundations of the information that you’ve been given,” Lara McLean said. “Our local has been called out as the big, bad wolf. We have to be like the worst union in the history of unions. Every year, we get less. We are always willing to work. We have worked with the city. Let us help you.”
Mayor Neil Bradshaw and members of the Ketchum City Council asked the Fire District commissioners to continue the agreement with the city. They pledged to fix the problems with the Fire Department. Bradshaw said he wanted to continue to press for consolidation, but was not wedded to a particular structure or format for accomplishing it.
“I will continue to take action to fix our own house,” he said. “I really, really want to fix this. I’m not going to let politics get in the way, even though I’m a politician.”
Councilman Michael David, the longest-serving member of the council along with Councilman Jim Slanetz, said he hadn’t been aware of the extent of problems with the Fire District.
“I’ve been on the council for seven years,” David said. “There was never an awareness of the urgency of the deficiencies. It’s not good enough to say, ‘We promise to do better.’ Ketchum needs to up its game. We need to examine any improprieties that Commissioner Stephens brought up. We need to work together to make this happen.”