Friday, February 4, 2011

Fire chiefs eager for consolidation

Details to be decided by elected officials

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County Commissioner Tom Bowman, right, listens intently Monday to a presentation on possible fire department consolidation in the south county. He and other elected officials will have to come together to agree on cooperative efforts in the future. Photo by Willy Cook

Fire chiefs in the south county say they are behind a recent recommendation by outside consultants to merge departments in order to increase efficiency and perhaps save money. How and when a merger takes place will depend on elected officials from Hailey, Bellevue and Blaine County.

"Bellevue has been trying to consolidate for years," said Bellevue Fire Chief Greg Beaver. "It's a good idea, but any one of these plans will raise taxes eventually."

Beaver was referring to several scenarios presented Monday by Emergency Services Consulting International at a long-awaited meeting in Hailey. The scenarios call for jointly staffed fire stations from East Fork to south of Bellevue.

The consultant was commissioned last year to conduct a feasibility study of consolidation possibilities among the Bellevue and Hailey fire departments and Wood River Fire & Rescue, which serves a far-ranging district outside the towns and assists city departments. It recommended the eventual annexation of Bellevue and Hailey into Wood River Fire & Rescue, but many details would have to be worked out if the advice is followed.

The top two consolidation scenarios called for decommissioning Bellevue's downtown fire station in favor of a jointly staffed station at the Wood River Fire & Rescue station south of town.

"I don't know how the taxpayers would feel about not having a fire station in their city," Beaver said.

He also said his three fire trucks would not fit in the station just south of town.

These are the kinds of details that elected officials will have to work out if consolidation efforts are to move forward. After the presentation this week, county and city officials called for development of cost projections and savings associated with the several consolidation scenarios in time for a follow-up meeting of the stakeholders on March 7.

"Total consolidation is the only option in the future, but we don't know which scenario is best yet," Hailey Fire Chief Mike Chapman said in an interview. "It's too early to make a decision."

Chapman said that in the past two years his department lost about $200,000 in revenue due to the recession. He said that money would have paid for an assistant chief position, testing of equipment and replacement of two 36-year-old fire trucks.

Tight budgets are one reason that Hailey Mayor Rick Davis called for the study last year.

Wood River Fire & Rescue Chief Bart Lassman said he was pleased with the study and how it was presented. He said his agency's finances have been tight during the recession, but that he has not had to cut back on expenses.

"Sometimes it's tough," Lassman said. "It makes for more work, but we like the challenge. I could have used a fire marshal, but I choose to do those things myself."

Under consolidation, departments could take up the slack for others, including the testing of equipment and ambulance services, Lassman said.

The Wood River Fire & Rescue budget is paid by the county under a contract for services for ambulance emergency medical services, Lassman said. EMS calls make up 90 percent of his emergency calls, he said.

"We could branch out to the cities and save them some money," he said. "I am very positive that the elected officials can come together and establish some goals that we can reach and set a vision for the future. Let's do it. It's time."

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