Whitefish Emergency Services Face Funding Difficulties

By Beacon Staff

The recession and loss of its finance director have complicated funding issues for the city of Whitefish as it moves forward with plans to build an emergency services center. Despite the financial questions, the city recently voted to begin advertising for construction bids for the $7.8-million facility, which will house both the police and fire departments, as well as the city courts.

The city plans to finance the proposed building through a bond based off of revenue from its tax-increment financing (TIF) district, as opposed to a general-obligation bond that depends on property tax pledges.

City Manager Chuck Stearns said the nation’s economic downturn might hurt future growth in the TIF district, thus limiting the funds generated by the district. Also, the TIF comes to an end in 2020. The credit crisis isn’t helping matters either, Stearns said. Factoring in these potential problems, Stearns said the city is looking at a possible $1 million shortfall in construction funds for the center, which will be located at Baker Commons.

But Stearns said there are questions to be answered before the city really knows where it stands financially since it has no finance director. Mike Eve, the city’s former finance director, passed away earlier this month after a year-and-a-half battle with cancer. Stearns said he is working with auditors to review Eve’s work and figure out the city’s up-to-date finances.

Stearns said he hopes to know within a month whether the city is short on funds. The city would like to go to bid for a construction contract by March. Building could then begin by summer.

“I think a lot of that will get reconciled when our financial data is clear,” Stearns said. “We’ll know more in the next few weeks.”

Meanwhile, Stearns is looking into possible alternative funding sources, such as privately placed tax-exempt bonds. Stearns said the city could also receive money through the proposed federal economic stimulus plan, which would provide funding for infrastructure projects.

There are two bright spots in the financing outlook, Stearns told city councilors in a report. One is that construction costs have dropped significantly. The second is that the Federal Reserve has pushed interest rates to historic lows.

Officials in Whitefish have long believed a new facility with expanded services is necessary to keep up with the city’s growth and to improve response abilities in emergency situations. Along with the new building at Baker Commons, the city is also increasing its fire and emergency staff to a 24-hour-per-day, seven-days-a-week operation. To fulfill these needs, the city will hire six or seven additional firefighters, Stearns said.

Last August, voters approved a mill levy to help pay for the increase in staff and resources. Also, Stearns announced earlier this month that the city has been awarded a federal grant worth $650,280 to help implement the expanded 24/7 services.

The grant, called SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response), is administered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The money will allow for three fully staffed fire shifts. Whitefish will receive the funds annually for four years on a declining-amount basis.

According to design plans from Grover & Co., an architectural firm based in Whitefish, the emergency services center will be 33,700 square feet in total. The fire department will take up the most space at 17,000 square feet, while the police department will be 10,300 square feet. The city courts are expected to be 2,200 square feet. Plans also call for a training room shared by the departments.

Public Works Director John Wilson said the architects have reached the advanced design stages, laying out plans for specific needs such as the computer and radio systems, as well as furniture.

“We’re getting down to the fine details for the specs and bid documents,” Wilson said.

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