Friday, October 27, 2006

Fire station open house heats up

Some in Hailey question need for proposed facility?s housing component


By JASON KAUFFMAN
Express Staff Writer

Hailey Assistant Fire Chief Carl Hjelm, left, explains the city of Hailey?s plans for a new fire station in the Woodside neighborhood to firefighters from some of the Wood River Valley?s other fire departments. On Tuesday, the Hailey Fire Department sponsored an open house for discussing a proposed $2.3 million bond to pay for the fire station. Photo by Willy Cook

What started as a simple open house to discuss the city of Hailey's decision to ask voters to approve a $2.3 million fire station bond request ended up being a little more raucous.

Hailey Assistant Fire Chief Carl Hjelm made the case for the new fire station before a standing-room-only crowd Tuesday at the Hailey Fire Station on Third Street. Hailey voters will consider the bond request during the upcoming Nov. 7 election.

During an approximately 25- to 30-minute-long PowerPoint presentation, Hjelm strung together the four main reasons Hailey officials are behind the bond request.

They include unsatisfactory emergency response times to incidents in the Woodside area, a need for greater station coverage, a desire to ensure better retention of volunteer recruits and, lastly, protection of the city's existing fire insurance ratings.

Perhaps most important is the need to increase response times to Woodside, which for the moment average out to about eight minutes, Hjelm said. Throughout the rest of the city, response times average considerably faster at about four minutes, he said.

"Eight minutes is a long time when something bad is happening," Hjelm said.

In Hailey, which stretches some 5.5 miles north to south, much of the population growth is taking place to the south in the Woodside area, he said. "More population means more demands for (emergency) services," Hjelm said.

The placement of the proposed fire station just northeast of the intersection of Woodside and Countryside boulevards would mean greater station coverage and, therefore, much quicker response times.

Many Hailey fire volunteers live in the Woodside area, Hjelm noted. Having the fire station near where the volunteers live would dramatically decrease the time it now takes them to drive north through traffic to the existing station on Third Street.

"Quicker than coming to Hailey," Hjelm said.

Building a fire station in Woodside would also correct the inefficiencies that are a result of the go-it-alone mentality that produced the side-by-side situation of the Hailey and Wood River Fire and Rescue fire stations on Third Street, Hjelm said.

The issue of retaining Hailey's current insurance rating—which is a key component determining what insurance rates homeowners pay—is important, but isn't as big of an issue, Hjelm said.

"I think it's a relatively minor issue," he said.

Following Hjelm's presentation, a lengthy and sometimes heated question-and-answer session ensued. Much of the back-and-forth debate centered on the necessity of having the valley's various fire departments come to some sort of agreement on consolidating emergency services.

At least several times during the question-and-answer session, Hjelm made an attempt to rein in the discussion and return it to one focusing just on the proposed fire station and bond request. He repeatedly said the consolidation question deserves to be debated on its own merits and shouldn't be discussed concurrently with the bond request.

"The whole consolidation thing is a big old can of worms," Hjelm said.

Only some in the crowd seemed convinced of the relevancy of the $2.3 million fire station bond request.

From their perspective, the city of Hailey is essentially putting the cart before the horse in its bid to build the large fire station before any type of consolidation decision is reached.

A key part of the disagreement has to do with the estimated $680,000 cost for building the housing component of the fire station. Although most agree that a fire station of some fashion is needed in the area, some during the meeting questioned whether the city should be building housing quarters for emergency crew members when the city Fire Department is still a strictly volunteer force, not counting the leadership and administrative staff.

Unless some sort of shared forces agreement is reached that would have paid emergency staff from the Wood River Fire and Rescue Department staffing the proposed facility, the building may end up empty most of the time, Woodside resident Anne Elliot said.

"What's the point?" Elliot asked. "Otherwise you have a building, and that's all you have."

Other speakers during the meeting likened the city's $2.3 million bond request with the go-it-alone mentality mentioned by Hjelm.

In the event that the bond request is approved by Hailey voters, annual bond payments would be structured to match the $190,000 annual bond payment city taxpayers are currently paying to finance the Hailey City Hall and library. Taxpayers will make the last of those bond payments for the Hailey City Hall and library on Aug. 1, 2008.

Payments on the $2.3 million fire station bond would last for 21 years, Hailey City Clerk Heather Dawson said.

According to documents provided by the city, the difference between the $2.3 million bond request and the estimated $2.7 million cost of the Woodside fire station would be paid for with fund balance reserves. Other options to pay for the approximately $500,000 difference between the bond request and the total cost of the fire station could come from anticipated local option tax funds and/or government grants.

Look in the Wednesday, Nov. 1, issue of the Idaho Mountain Express for an in-depth article looking at both sides of the $2.3 million fire station bond request and the issue of whether consolidation of emergency services is necessary in the south valley.




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