Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bellevue drafts questions about fire consolidation

City leaders seek financial detail for consultantís next update


By MATT FURBER
Express Staff Writer

To help determine the likely savings of consolidating south-county fire departments, the city of Bellevue is seeking public input on adding questions to those raised two weeks ago by the city of Hailey. The questions will be put to a consultant whose $48,000 study was criticized by Hailey officials at that time for not providing "bottom-line" answers.

Emergency Services Consulting International, based in Wilsonville, Ore., has reported twice this winter on its "Cooperative Efforts Feasibility Study," commissioned by Hailey. After months of interviews and drawing up inventories of existing fire-fighting resources, the consultant initially presented the results of the study in January to the Hailey and Bellevue fire departments and Wood River Fire & Rescue. In February, it provided an amended draft, and another update is expected following the latest round of questions from stakeholders.

How do fire hazard estimates, known as ISO ratings, impact insurance costs? If there is a change in ratings due to consolidation, how will changes affect fire insurance costs? Those are a couple of the questions that Bellevue City Council members hope to have answered.

"If the (ISO) rating drops, your insurance rates go up," said City Councilman Brett Gelskey at a council meeting on Thursday, March 24.

Council members and Mayor Chris Koch want to understand the costs of consolidation to Bellevue residents compared to the city's continuing to provide its own fire-fighting services.

"Where do the ratings come from?" he asked. "What would it take to improve our rating?"

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Council members said they hope to add questions to those being supplied by Hailey.

The 370-page report includes several scenarios under which the three entities could merge operations, and about 30 options for them to work together without becoming consolidated. But Hailey and Bellevue officials are requesting that the consultant fill in other gaps in the results of the study, including projections of municipal capital improvement needs in the recommended scenarios. Hailey City Administrator Heather Dawson said in an interview that another round of updates from Emergency Services Consulting International is expected to answer the lingering financial questions.

An analysis of the consultant's report, done by Hailey Fire Chief Mike Chapman and others, identified several areas for further review, including maintenance costs for fire-fighting equipment.

"Is the equipment going to be better if we consolidate?" Gelskey asked. "I don't know."

Hailey City Attorney Ned Williamson has briefed Hailey leaders on the legal requirements of dissolving, creating and annexing fire districts, another area of expense.

Volunteering to follow the conversation for his city, Bellevue resident Pat Rainey said that at the current stage in the review process, a survey might help Bellevue citizens and the city make choices about how the community should participate in fire consolidation. The council suggested organizing a town meeting to solicit input. Councilman Larry Plott said the goal is to have an informed citizenry when the time comes to make decisions.

"That's a fantastic idea, to have a town hall meeting," Koch said.

Koch said he wants Bellevue to be well prepared when a consolidation plan is put before it for consideration.

Koch said the process of evaluating the prospects for consolidation of services has already provided some benefit to the community. He said fire professionals are communicating better and discovering ways to share resources, reduce capital costs and find efficiencies, including combined training sessions. Dawson said another issue for discussion is how to plan for the best use of existing and future fire stations, currently belonging to and being planned by all three fire districts.

"Communication between agencies has never been better," Koch said. "We're talking now."

Council members and the mayor said the city's goal is to come up with about six questions to submit to the consultants that best represent what the public is asking. Rainey, Koch and City Development Services Director Craig Eckles agreed to organize the town meeting for early May, most likely at the Bellevue Elementary School, where there is more space to accommodate a larger crowd. The city also plans to put out a questions box at City Hall so people can drop by with their concerns. The city might also canvass Bellevue residents at Atkinsons' Market.




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