Friday, March 28, 2008

One fire department for north valley?

Consultant recommends consolidation

Express Staff Writer

Ketchum firefighters Annie Stout, left, and Lara McLean, right, could find themselves part of a combined force if their department is consolidated with that of Sun Valley. A recent consultant?s report recommended the consolidation, as well the construction of a new fire station to serve the new department. Photo by Willy Cook

One of the Wood River Valley's most contentious issues—the consolidation of fire departments—is coming back to the forefront with the publication of a consultant's reports recommending a joint powers agreement between the Sun Valley and Ketchum fire departments.

"The determination benchmark for all decisions facing the consolidation effort should be: What is in the best interest of the people we serve?" stated the report from the Illinois-based McGrath Consulting Group.

The report was completed in August 2007, but was only recently made public and is now available on both cities' Web sites.

The report provides thorough analysis of both departments, including the average number of calls received for each day of the week, equipment replacement schedules and staffing requirements.

"This was a very comprehensive report and got into an amazing amount of data," said Jerry Osterman, interim city administrator for Sun Valley.

Boiled down, the 334-page report resulted in a number of specific and wide-reaching recommendations, including full consolidation of the two departments, with Ketchum's fire chief retaining the top position and current Sun Valley Chief Jeff Carnes taking the title of Chief of Community Services.

As well, it was recommended that the two departments should build a joint fire and emergency medical services station, either on Sun Valley's five-acre parcel, Saddle Road or Spruce Avenue in Ketchum.

The new station would replace Sun Valley's City Hall station, deemed inadequate because of its size and location right on the City Hall parking lot. The station in downtown Ketchum was also determined to be inadequate because of its age and size.

The consultants put the cost of a new station in the range of $3.6 million, but stated a consolidated station could save taxpayers about $1.6 million over building a new stations for each department, as the current downtown Ketchum station would be eliminated and Sun Valley's station converted for City Hall use.

In addition to a shared building, the report recommended shared purchase of a new fire engine.

However, more than any material object, the report recognized the high number of volunteer firefighters as the biggest asset to both departments.

"Perhaps the greatest benefit of consolidation is the ability to enlarge the pool of paid on-call (volunteers). Consolidation will cease the competition of each department recruiting from the same limited number of paid on-call and form a larger employee pool," the report stated.

While combining the two volunteer forces could prove beneficial to both departments, their difference in paid, full-time firefighters could require Sun Valley to pay more in salaries. Whereas the Ketchum department has 12 career members, Sun Valley has but two--the chief and assistant chief.

This issue, along with the consolidation in general, has still some distance to go before it could become a reality.

"We started talks last November and made some headway, but then got caught in the election cycle," said Ketchum Councilman Ron Parsons, who is also a veteran member of the Ketchum Fire Department. "We wanted to give (Sun Valley Mayor) Wayne Willich and the new council members time to read it before we sat down again."

For Parsons, the decision goes beyond taking advantage of opportunities of scale.

"We want to move forward if this is a way to improve the level of service," Parson said. "And if we can save some money in the process, that would be wonderful, too."

With officials in both cities busy with new building developments, it will likely take some time before any substantive decisions are made.

"The next step will be for the mayor, fire chief and city staff to meet and make sure all the necessary information is there. Then it will go to the council," Osterman said of Sun Valley's approach. "It's a complex decision that will have to take into account logistics, finances and politics."

Osterman said the council will hold a meeting May 1 to discuss goals and objective for the near future, and that consolidation would likely be discussed then, but that the council would likely delve deeper into the issue sometime around June.

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