Friday, August 21, 2009

Should emergency agencies unite?

Officials agree to study possible benefits of consolidation

Express Staff Writer

Hailey Mayor Rick Davis, left, shares a laugh with Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen on Wednesday during a fire and emergency medical services summit organized by Hailey officials. Officials from all over the south county gathered in the Old Blaine County Courthouse to discuss consolidating fire and emergency medical services into one agency. Photo by David N. Seelig

There's been talk of combining the eight emergency fire and medical services in southern Blaine County into one department for decades. But elected officials and those representing the various departments hadn't sat down together to discuss the controversial issue head-on, at least not in recent years.

That changed Wednesday during a fire and emergency medical services summit meeting at the Old Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey, organized by Hailey Mayor Rick Davis and other officials from the mid-valley city that finds itself at the center of the topic.

Perhaps the biggest news is that there wasn't any yelling or stomping out of the meeting room—always a possibility when Wood River Valley officials and their often-divergent views come together under one roof. At times, there was even laughter.

Facilitating the night's discussion was Benjamin Marchant, city administrator for the city of Jerome. Right off the bat, Marchant challenged the officials to do some "creative and dynamic thinking" in regards to looking for inefficiencies in the south county fire and emergency medical services system.

In many cases, their service areas overlap. The longtime goal of some has been to find a way to combine them in a way that saves money and improves services.

"This is a big opportunity for change," Marchant said.

But that doesn't mean it will be easy. Sitting in the crowd Wednesday were many of the full-time and paid on-call firefighters and paramedics who could see their jobs change as a result of a merger.

"There needs to be a willingness by all parties to make sacrifices," Marchant said, though he didn't elaborate on what those sacrifices might entail.

As the night's meeting progressed, it became clear that no major decisions would be made. Rather, the officials came together in agreement to begin what may be a long and drawn-out process to determine whether consolidation would be if beneficial.

"Political will" was one of the catch phrases bandied about during the meeting. As in, is there enough interest by elected officials to actually change things?

Bellevue City Councilman Shaun Mahoney said leaders have to look at the issue from more of a regional perspective and give a backseat to their more narrow, jurisdictional views.

"What benefits our community as a whole?" Mahoney asked.

In the end, the officials—representing interests ranging from the Carey Rural Fire District to the much larger Hailey and Wood River Fire and Rescue departments—agreed to compile a list of questions that would be considered part of a consolidation study.

Within a month, Hailey officials will gather all those questions and compile them into a master list. The idea is to put them into a request for proposals sent out to contractors that could complete a detailed study looking at the benefits of consolidation.

So, in a sense, all that was agreed to on Wednesday was to consider conducting a study. Of course, the cost of such a study will have to be a consideration.

County Commissioner Larry Schoen said the broader public is interested in looking at potential cost efficiencies. Schoen said they don't care as much about disagreements among officials.

"People want us to get past personal conflicts, interagency conflicts," he said. "I don't think the public believes those can any longer be the obstacles."

That said, there are some who fear that a larger emergency services department in the south county could lose something.

Carey Mayor Rick Baird said governments that are closer to the people are "typically more responsive to the people." He said he's for looking at consolidation, but the goals and rationale for a merger have to be clearly defined before he'll back a study.

That advice found broad agreement among the officials, Hailey Mayor Rick Davis included. He said the public will have to be brought in during the process, perhaps as part of a series of town hall meetings.

"I want this as transparent as possible," he said.

Jason Kauffman:

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