Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sun Valley rejects fire consolidation

City officials deem cost of plan prohibitive

Express Staff Writer

Members of the Sun Valley Fire Department, including Fire Chief Jeff Carnes, center, pose in front of a department engine last year. The department will not be consolidated with the nearby Ketchum Fire Department. Photo by Mountain Express

After years of discussion and a consultant's recommendation, the Sun Valley City Council has rejected full consolidation between the city's fire department with that of Ketchum, at least for the near future.

At a meeting on Thursday, April 17, council members and Mayor Wayne Willich went against the recommendation of the Illinois-based McGrath Consulting Group, expressing concern over the cost to Sun Valley taxpayers that would result if the two departments were to consolidate.

"Our fire service is about the most cost-effective arrangement you can have," Willich said during his introduction to the issue. "I need you to know how I feel about this, and consolidation just doesn't pencil out for me."

When the study was undertaken in 2006, the Sun Valley Fire Department received about 22 percent of the amount of funding of the Ketchum department. However, taking into account the number of calls for each department, the cities' populations and property valuation, the consultant recommended a formula that would have Sun Valley pay 30.2 percent of the budget and Ketchum 69.8 percent.

"This is about a $245,000 transfer in budget with no change in service," Willich said.

The issue, though, is further complicated by the Ketchum Fire Department's contract with Blaine County to provide ambulance service to residents north of the Greenhorn bridge. Councilman Nils Ribi said that when the funding provided by the county ambulance district to the Ketchum Fire Department is taken into account, Sun Valley's portion for simple fire protection becomes much greater.

"This is where it doesn't make sense at all," Ribi said. "That's why we need to end this talk right now."

This was supported by the other council members, as well as former Sun Valley Mayor Dave Wilson, who said the current cooperation between the two departments has worked well.

"The mutual and automatic aid agreements have been very effective," Wilson said. "It would be a shame to see those go away."

The agreements allow for either the central dispatcher or the incident commander to call in additional resources from both departments.

In addition, the two departments share equipment and fire apparatus, such as an aerial tower truck and mobile command unit.

Another former mayor, Jon Thorson, was the lone voice at the meeting to support the consolidation, arguing that the city could greatly benefit from improved EMS service, especially as the average Sun Valley constituent's age continues to increase. As well, Thorson said the financial analysis is incomplete because future joint purchases of equipment or even a fire station could result in financial benefit in the long run.

Still, that wasn't enough to convince the council, which voted to reject the consultant's recommendation for full and immediate consolidation. However, Willich said he would contact Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall, who attended a portion of the meeting, to discuss further potential cooperation that could benefit both departments.

For Ketchum city officials, the rejection of the report was not well received, as there had been little communication on the issue since the report was release last fall.

"I'm disappointed the Sun Valley council basically shelved the study," Councilman Ron Parsons said at a Ketchum City Council meeting on Monday, April 21. "They made a business decision and I wish they would reverse it."

Parsons said that he would like to sit down with his Sun Valley counterparts before any final decision is made, noting the collaboration between the two cities that went into the report in the first place, a sentiment echoed by Mayor Hall.

"We've been partners in this for at least a decade," he said.

Hall said that he had been contacted by Willich and that the pair were working on scheduling a time to discuss the issue.

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