Friday, October 6, 2006

New Hailey fire station would benefit residents


The Hailey Fire Department will seek voter approval for a new fire station in the general election Nov. 7. The new station would be located in the center of Woodside. We would like to explain the need for the station, the consequences of not building the station, and offer the opportunity for both public comment and further discussion.

There is currently no fire station in Woodside, and, for adequate emergency services, there should be. Response times from the existing station, located on Third Avenue South, average more than eight minutes to emergencies in the southern portion of Woodside (compared to less than three in other parts of Hailey).

Eight minutes is a long time when a person is hurt or a fire is burning. More than half of the department's volunteer firefighters live in the Woodside area, and a new station would allow those firefighters a more rapid response to emergency incidents both in Woodside and throughout the city. Additionally, the city has been given the land for the station by the developers of Woodside. A station has been planned at this location (the intersection of Countryside and Woodside Boulevards) for more than 30 years. The planned station will allow the department to keep the high level of service that exists and improve that service for many Hailey residents.

In 1992, voters approved a bond for the purchase of the Fox Building for a new library and City Hall. That bond will be paid off in 2008. The owner of property with a taxable value of $450,000 (what we're calling the average taxpayer) pays less than $65 per year on that bond. The Department is asking voters to approve a bond amount that would borrow $2.32 million, and would create a tax burden equal to that of the existing library bond. This means the actual tax burden for the average taxpayer would not increase in order to pay for the station. The Hailey City Council has agreed to use development fees and grants to pay for the remainder of the cost of the station. Conversely, should the city's insurance rating slip (more on this later), the average homeowner would see their homeowner's insurance rise by as much as 15 percent.

The Hailey Fire Department responds to all fires, accidents, medical calls, hazardous materials spills, rescue calls, and many other assorted emergencies within the city of Hailey, and, as needed, throughout the county. The Hailey Fire Department has four full-time employees and 21 volunteer (paid per call) members. The limited number of full-time personnel, limited resources of the department, and aggressive pursuit of funding through grants and other means, has provided the taxpayers of Hailey with a significant tax savings over the past 15 years. The owner of a $450,000.00 house in Hailey pays only $42.34 in property taxes to the department each year. This amount is well below national and regional averages for the level of protection provided.

This savings has been accomplished through the hard work and selfless dedication of the volunteer members without any service detriment to the citizens. The Idaho Survey and Rating Bureau rates fire departments on their capacities and abilities. The ratings range from 1 (best) to 10 (worst). The rating is based on a number of factors, including apparatus, water supply, training, personnel, and losses in your district. It is very difficult for mostly volunteer departments to achieve a rating of 5 or better. The Hailey Fire Department is rated a 4.

The rating achieved by a fire department is important because the rating determines a significant part of the fire insurance cost for property owners. Further, the rating is uniform for the entire city, so having a house right next to the fire station does not improve your fire protection rating. Should the department slip from a rating of 4 to a rating of 5, the increased total insurance cost to property owners in Hailey is estimated to be well in excess of a million dollars each year.

With the significant growth of the city over the past 10 years, and without a new station in Woodside, the city's rating is expected to slip to a 5. The Survey and Rating Bureau has established a 1.5 mile driving radius as the maximum distance for service areas for city fire stations. About two-thirds of Woodside is outside that 1.5 mile radius, and that area has seen significant growth since the last time the department was evaluated.

Members of the community have expressed concern regarding the need for a new station, its cost, and the possible cost savings that might be realized as part of the consolidation of emergency services in the south valley. We understand and appreciate these concerns. Recent construction estimates put the cost of the building at $246 per square foot. We are very concerned about the use of taxpayer money, and the station has been conservatively planned to meet both the current and future needs of the city.

The issue of consolidation of emergency services in the south valley has also been raised as a possible cost saving strategy. The departments of the south valley have discussed formal consolidation for the past 15 years. While formidable legal and fiduciary obstacles have prevented that type of consolidation, the departments have many cooperative functional agreements and work together closely on emergency scenes. Currently, three fire stations (two stations and a vehicle barn) exist within a four-block area in Hailey. This arrangement is not efficient. The planned Woodside station is the first step in providing the actual coverage the city needs, and to eliminating some of that inefficiency. The Hailey Fire Station, as mentioned above, is no longer in the right place to meet the needs of Hailey. Portions of Northridge are also not within the 1.5-mile travel distance from the station and are, as such, also a concern for the city's rating.

The second phase of the station plan is to build a station either in or near Northridge in order to provide coverage for that area. That station may be shared with other agencies if no consolidation has taken place by then. The existing station at Third Avenue South would then not be needed, and could either be sold to pay for the new station, or be put to some other use by the city.

The citizens of Hailey have an opportunity to increase public safety, provide for future needs of the community, and maintain both taxes and insurance at their current rates by building a new fire station in Woodside. We appreciate any and all public feedback on this issue, and welcome any public questions, concerns or comments. The department will hold a series of open houses over the coming weeks and will present plans for the station at those meetings. Please watch media outlets for a calendar of those meetings.

We would like to encourage the citizens of Hailey to vote on Nov. 7.

Carl Hjelm is the assistant fire chief for the city of Hailey.

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