The Sun Valley City Council approved a contract for services with the Ketchum Rural Fire Protection District on Monday—a move that will divert money away from the city of Ketchum as fallout continues from failed consolation efforts earlier this year.
The $300,000 deal, approved by Ketchum Rural’s commissioners in a 2-1 vote last week, will kick in on Oct. 1.
Meeting at the same time as Sun Valley on Monday afternoon, the Ketchum City Council voted 4-0 to preserve its agreement with the Fire District until Oct. 1. Ketchum’s contract was going to expire on June 28.
Under the agreement, the Sun Valley Fire Department will take on Ketchum Rural’s operations, answer its fire calls, train its personnel, maintain its equipment and generally administer the department, as the city of Ketchum as done for years. Sun Valley plans to hire a new assistant fire chief tasked specifically with managing the business of the rural district, and a fire clerk to maintain records and keep the books.
Ketchum Rural currently pays Ketchum $327,000 annually for services. It provides services to outlying areas in the northern Wood River Valley.
On Monday, Sun Valley Public Safety Director Walt Femling told the City Council that he hopes Ketchum Rural’s volunteer firefighters would become dual members with Sun Valley’s department, to help “lay the foundation” for future consolidation efforts.
“If you can take the volunteers from Ketchum, Ketchum Rural and Sun Valley, and they all respond to calls as they come in—that’s phase one of consolidation right there,” he said. “If we can knock down the borders, and knock down department names, that’s phase two of consolidation.”
That kind of fellowship seemed far away during Monday’s meeting, as council members and Mayor Peter Hendricks rebuked a critical letter from Ketchum City Councilman Jim Slanetz, which is published in this edition of the Idaho Mountain Express as a guest opinion.
On Monday night, members of the Ketchum City Council expressed disapproval of the Fire District commissioners’ vote on May 14.
“I don’t think that was an appropriate decision,” City Councilwoman Courtney Hamilton said. “That was a big step back to working together. If you want to talk about building bridges, they tore one down last week.”
They said it was imperative that Ketchum maintain its current levels of staffing, which is necessary to keep its $1.1 million Blaine County Ambulance District contract. That would mean covering an unbudgeted $327,000 expense, previously provided by Ketchum Rural, in the fiscal 2020 budget.
They also spoke of the importance of maintaining morale in the Ketchum Fire Department. They said Ketchum had been insulted in the prior six months during the sometimes-heated debate over consolidation. The Ketchum Fire Department does the majority of training in the north valley, and the city supplied the land for the new fire training facility on Lewis Street.
“I’m really proud of our Ketchum Fire Department,” City Councilwoman Amanda Breen said. “We are crucial to the north valley. We haven’t been shown the respect. Other bodies need to recognize that and show that respect.”
Half-jokingly, Slanetz asked if Sun Valley should contract with Ketchum to provide the manpower it needs to fulfill the Fire District contract.
However, the council members favored continuity in the operations of firefighting and EMS and did not want to cancel the Fire District contract on June 28. Canceling the contract on June 28 would cost Ketchum $81,000 in fiscal 2019, interim Fire Chief Tom Bowman said.
Mayor Neil Bradshaw said he was still committed to pursuing a consolidated operation, but Hamilton and other council members said they doubted a plan could be assembled by Oct. 1.
“We took the high road and did everything that was asked of us,” Councilman Michael David said. “Our value has to be acknowledged as we go through this process. We bring the greatest resource in the world, which is the people.”
Commenting before their vote, Sun Valley’s council members expressed displeasure with Slanetz’s letter.
“It is, in my opinion, short on facts and long on supposition,” Councilwoman Michelle Griffith said. “I don’t believe it is Mr. Slanetz’s place to call into question our staff, or lecture our citizens. The fact is, the citizens of Sun Valley have been subsidizing Ketchum for years through unrestricted access to our fire apparatus … and I urge the mayor to consider alternatives to those arrangements.”
Femling also dismissed the claims, telling the council that response times for fire will improve under the deal. (Medical calls will remain Ketchum’s responsibility, pursuant to a separate contract with the Blaine County Ambulance District.) And, Femling told officials that high-level squabbles have not damaged services between cities on the ground.
“As far as our firefighters themselves, everybody’s working, in my opinion, very well together,” he said. “The citizens can sleep well knowing that if they have an EMS call or fire, everybody’s coming—and that’s our goal.”
Ketchum Rural Commissioner Jed Gray said he held out hope for north valley consolidation. Gray, who voted against abandoning the Ketchum contract, urged patience from all parties.
“I was concerned—and am still somewhat concerned—that the two of us joining together leaves Ketchum out in the cold,” he told the council. “I hope you can continue to support overall consolidation as we come up with a way to get there. Right now, Ketchum needs time to build themselves back up.”