Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Will Bellevue Fire go it alone?

Residents asked for input on whether to pursue consolidation

Express Staff Writer

Bellevue Fire Chief Greg Beaver shows wear and tear on the Bellevue Fire Station last year. Photo by Mountain Express

Will the Bellevue Fire Department seek outside support or go it alone?

The Bellevue City Council succeeded in stoking some passionate public discourse Monday night about how to help the city's under-funded fire department.

About 50 people, including many firefighters from all south valley agencies, showed up at a town hall meeting at Bellevue Elementary School. They came to evaluate the city's existing fire-fighting capabilities in light of options to consolidate the Bellevue Fire Department with the Hailey and/or Wood River Fire & Rescue departments.

Consolidation would at least double the annual cost of fire protection for Bellevue residents, from $13 to $26 per year per $100,000 of property valuation, said Mayor Chris Koch.

However, Wood River Fire & Rescue Chief Bart Lassman said consolidation would "decrease slightly" fire protection rates paid by county residents in a 50 square-mile area served by his Wood River Fire Protection District.

According to a 400-page fire consolidation study, posted on the city of Hailey website, many intermediate measures exist for south valley fire departments to work together. It is up to the city to decide when and if these measures will be taken.

City leaders said they need public input in order to decide how to move forward.

"We want to do what you want us to do," said Councilwoman Barb Patterson.

The Bellevue City Council presented "go-it-alone" alternatives to consolidation Monday, including the possibility of raising the tax levy for increased fire protection, seeking grants for equipment and training, and enlisting more volunteer firefighters in case the city decides to keep the status quo.

The 10 trained members of the Bellevue Fire Department do not make up a large enough crew to fight an "urban" fire, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Fifteen firefighters are required.

Bellevue Fire Captain Trent Shoemaker made a passionate plea for more volunteers, saying, "This has to happen now. It can't be swept under the rug."

The Bellevue Fire Department gets by in an old, run-down fire station with aging equipment on $72,800 per year, not enough to purchase new equipment or replace aging fire trucks, said Fire Chief Greg Beaver. Under consolidation, Bellevue could share equipment, and perhaps a fire station, with neighboring agencies.

Jeff Vert joined the Bellevue Fire Department 18 years ago after his house burned down. He pointed out that the cost for police services has increased from $30,000 per year in 1989 to $370,000.

"The fire department has not kept up," Vert said.

Koch said that despite a levy increase passed by Bellevue voters four years ago to increase fire protection spending, the city had to "rob" the department's budget to keep other city departments alive during the recession.

Many Bellevue firefighters, including the chief, work outside the city during the day. In case of a large fire, the first available truck may have to come from Hailey under a mutual-aid agreement between the two cities.

"Seven minutes is a long time when your house is burning," said Vert.

Tom Wynn questioned the need to increase costs at all for Bellevue residents.

"Nobody has died. Bellevue is broke," he said. "Who says we need to do anything?"

But as the city moves into budget hearings, consolidation will continue to be an issue.

The council will hold another town hall meeting this summer to address some of the issues raised Monday.

Tony Evans:

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