Thirty-eight people commented at the Kalispell City Council meeting Monday, the vast majority of whom spoke up in support of firefighters and against planned layoffs.
City Manager Jane Howington has said reductions in the 30-person Fire Department are necessary to make up a budget shortfall created by a new labor contract with the firefighters’ union.
The firefighters dispute Howington’s math regarding the cost of the new contract, and have been working the last several weeks to alert citizens to the proposed cuts, distributing fliers on doorsteps. Some citizens speaking at the meeting wore T-shirts saying they opposed layoffs at the department.
Suzanne Dickenson was one of many Kalispell residents who questioned whether cutting firefighters would decrease public safety.
“A compromise of my safety and my family’s safety is not an option,” Dickenson said. “If I were to call upon one of our firemen they would come and I know that I would be taken care of and taken to the hospital quickly.”
“Why is it when cities feel a budget crisis, emergency services are the first to go?” she asked.
Of the 38 who spoke, nine people identified themselves as Kalispell firefighters or the family members of firefighters. Only one man said he agreed that the Fire Department should be downsized. Several others identified themselves as working in emergency services – either as physicians, ALERT pilots or in other capacities – and expressed concern over the potential difficulties caused by privatizing the Kalispell ambulance service, which is another proposal by Howington aimed at cutting costs.
“Kalispell ambulance is a big player in this system,” Mary Granger, Flathead County EMS Manager, said. “This decision doesn’t just impact the residents of the city; it also impacts the county as well.”
Jill Cheman, chief of the Smith Valley Fire Department, told the council cutting Kalispell firefighters could overburden surrounding rural, volunteer departments, which would likely receive more frequent calls for assistance.
“We are not prepared to absorb the increased volume,” Cheman said. “Our resources are definitely limited.”
Other citizens blasted the council’s spending choices in recent years, questioning why Kalispell delayed imposing transportation impact fees upon large box stores in the northern shopping district, along with the severance packages of the last city manager and fire chief.
“You do not have a budget crisis; you have a moral crisis,” Roxanna Brothers said. “In my opinion, the goal is to break the union.”
“There’s been enough of those kind of mistakes that you could easily save those firefighters,” Brothers added. “You’re not bargaining in good faith and that is a crime.”
The council took no action on any firefighter-related issues at the meeting, and it’s unclear whether negotiations between city officials and the firefighters may pick up once again, or layoffs are imminent.
And despite the impassioned pleas of many citizens, only one or two said they would be willing to pay more in taxes if it meant avoiding firefighter layoffs. Howington estimates the new firefighter contract will cost Kalispell an additional $690,000.
At the end of the nearly four-hour meeting, after the council voted on other issues, Howington said financial representatives of the city and firefighters met earlier that day, and the city would not take any sudden actions, though “rumors are rampant right now.”
“We’re not shutting off the ambulance; we’re not going to do it tomorrow and we’re not going to do it without a lot of input,” Howington said. “Yes, we’re exploring those options.”
“We’re also not going to expose the citizens to unsafe response times – that’s just not going to happen,” she added. “It’s very emotional, it’s very stressful for all of us and very difficult but we all have to pause before making accusations.”
Mayor Tammi Fisher said Kalispell will not be increasing its budget as it plans for the next fiscal year, beginning July 1, so she doesn’t see how to account for pay raises and longevity pay increases for firefighters.
“We’ve got the same numbers to work with this year as we did last year,” Fisher said. “So barring a public safety levy, I don’t know how to make it all fit.”
Other council members seemed stumped as to how to reconcile the apparently conflicting demands from the public that Kalispell comply with the new firefighter contract granting pay raises, without raising taxes.
“No one wanted an increase in taxes; they all wanted us to get the money from somewhere else,” Councilman Duane Larson said. “I don’t know how we’re going to solve this.”
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