About a year ago, Sun Valley Mayor Peter Hendricks and Ketchum Mayor Neil Bradshaw publicly unveiled a proposal to consolidate their police, fire and emergency medical services departments.
Their calm, confident demeanor in the press conference at Ketchum City Hall didn’t hint at the political tumult that was to come, though perhaps their sense of timing did. They chose to hold their press conference on the morning of Aug. 3, 2018, when the Sharps Fire was swelling above 55,000 acres as it burned east of Bellevue.
Their consolidation plans faltered in the winter and spring, but a group of retired and professional firefighters in Ketchum and Sun Valley has continued to work on the project.
Tom McLean, a retired captain in the Ketchum Fire Department, said their new proposal is ready for public viewing.
At the behest of the Ketchum Rural Fire Protection District board of commissioners, McLean, Jeff Nevins, who is a longtime member of Wood River Fire & Rescue, and other partners assembled the plan.
McLean said he and the 13 other team members wanted to build on the work started by Sun Valley Public Safety Director Walt Femling in 2018 and 2019. They have the same goals as Femling: better, expanded service at less cost to taxpayers.
Their plan is contained in a thick binder that McLean holds, whose contents include relevant sections of Idaho law, replacement schedule of vehicles, possible shift schedules and the financial and budget information each agency would contribute.
The proposal calls for forming a new fire district in northern Blaine County consisting of the city of Ketchum, the city of Sun Valley and the Ketchum Rural Fire Protection District, which extends from Greenhorn north to Galena. The new district would not include Smiley Creek, McLean said in an interview July 16.
Significantly, McLean said no existing professional firefighters or paid-on-call volunteers would be “designed out” of the new system.
He said the new district could link with fire and emergency medical services agencies in the south county through a joint-powers agreement. The new district, called NewCo Fire, would be set up to take on the contract with the Blaine County Ambulance Service.
“We wanted to make sure we maintained an independent drive, but were considerate of some of the players,” McLean said. “Governance, finance, operations—they are all very inter-related. We had a fairly broad palate to draw upon.”
McLean said they wanted to respect each jurisdiction’s budgets, facilities, vehicles and employees.
Under Idaho law, the Ketchum and Sun Valley city councils can approve consolidation into a rural fire district via a resolution and ordinance. The fire district can do so by resolution, McLean said.
That achieves two aims—elections aren’t required in Ketchum, Sun Valley and the fire district, and the jurisdictions can decide that they want to leave the district without too many painful gyrations.
The cities and the fire district would retain ownership of their assets, McLean said.
“It allows them consolidation remorse,” he said. “If they decide after two years, this just isn’t working for us, they can get out and still own their fire station, their vehicles and their equipment. The gate swings easily in and it swings easily out.”
The representation of the new fire district board would include five commissioners, an increase from the three-member board that governs the Ketchum Rural Fire District. The commissioners would be voted in during the next available election.
The Ketchum Rural Fire District’s current boundaries would have to be redrawn, once Ketchum and Sun Valley were included. The current commissioners represent geographic areas—north, central and south—within the district’s boundaries. Those boundary lines would change, McLean said.
He said a fire technical advisory committee would be set up to assist the commissioners and handle any issues or complaints that arise in the district.
That committee would have five positions total. That would include two members from Sun Valley—they could be members of the Sun Valley City Council, the mayor or their designees. It would include two members from Ketchum—members of the Ketchum City Council, the mayor or their designees. The final spot would go to the Blaine County Ambulance District, McLean said.
“These five individuals would influence how care is provided in their community,” McLean said.
To fund the district’s operations, property owners in Ketchum, Sun Valley and the Ketchum Rural Fire District would pay a uniform mill levy rate of $19.58 per $100,000 of assessed property value. That’s the same rate that Ketchum Rural property owners pay now, McLean said.
If the city councils and the Ketchum Rural District commissioners approve NewCo Fire by the end of 2019, the district would not be able to accrue revenue for a year. Operations would be financed through existing city and Rural District revenues for that startup year. That totals $3.1 million.
Property owners would see the line item on their tax bills in July 2020. Owners in the Rural District would not see a change. Ketchum and Sun Valley owners would see the new line item.
McLean said the $19.58 per $100,000 value would generate $2.6 million total from all property owners. That would leave the district $500,000 shy of the current levels of funding. He said he and the other group members are proposing to take $250,000 each in local-option tax funding from the city of Ketchum and Sun Valley to make up the difference.
They could also pledge to provide 10 percent of each city’s total LOT collections, not including the 1 Percent for Air tax or $250,000, whichever is greater. If local-option tax collections increase, it’s typically due to increased visitation—and thus more calls for service in the northern Wood River Valley, McLean said.
He said this district would save the city of Sun Valley about $700,000 relative to what it now pays for fire and EMS. Ketchum’s savings would be minimal, but the city would benefit from expanded service. The Rural District would also avoid future budgetary increases while benefiting from expanded service, McLean said.
He said it would be up to the city councils and mayors to decide what to do with the budgetary savings.
“The cities get to decide whether they save that money or give that back or devote it to other areas of concern,” he said.
McLean said the advantage of a consolidated fire district is that the commissioners only have to focus on fire and EMS, unlike the cities, which have a litany of other responsibilities and services to provide.
“It eliminates much of the political elements,” he said. “They don’t have streets. They don’t have water districts. They don’t have manhole covers. There would be more full-time firefighters on per-shift and a larger pool of paid-on-calls. Everybody has a piece that should theoretically make them happy.”
McLean said the proposal will be put before the Ketchum and Sun Valley city councils and to the Ketchum Rural Fire District board by the end of this year.