Facing the prospect of a new contract with the city of Whitefish that includes fee increases, the rural Fire Service Area Board is considering cutting ties with the city and establishing a volunteer department of its own.
The board announced it was pondering the departure in a letter to property owners living in the service area that rings the city’s outskirts, which has seen a steady uptick in demands for emergency services through the years. The property value of the Whitefish Fire Service Area (WFSA) is greater than any other fire district in Flathead County, and is surpassed only by the city departments in Kalispell and Whitefish.
In the letter, board members acknowledged that, “operationally, it would be easiest to continue to pay Whitefish for this much-needed service.”
“We are concerned, however, that the 6% per year increase Whitefish has proposed is unreasonable and not reflective of the long-term sustainable partnership this type of utility requires,” the letter states. “We also believe that the other option could permit us greater responsiveness, flexibility, and cost management.”
The board says it could house its equipment, a paid fire chief and between 10 and 15 volunteers at its current fire hall off Whitefish Stage Road, while incurring sufficient savings to purchase a new fire hall west of Whitefish in the next few years.
“We believe that we can provide the same or better service as what we currently receive from Whitefish,” the letter states.
The development prompted Whitefish city officials to respond in a separate letter calling some of the information included in the proposal “bothersome,” and clarifying that the proposed fee increase covers operational costs. The WFSA’s share of the city department’s 2020 budget accounted for 25 percent of the $1.17 million total, even though the WFSA represents 40 percent of the city’s calls.
According to the May 7 response letter by Whitefish City Manager Dana Smith and Fire Chief Joe Page, the proposed fee increases came up as the city initiated negotiations to extend its five-year contract with the WFSA, which is due to expire in June 2021.
The city proposed an immediate $20,000 increase to the first semi-annual payment in the new contract, followed by a 2.25% increase for each of the subsequent semi-annual payments, totaling $426,157 in 2026.
“While this is a significant increase, that amount represents only 36% of the Department’s budget for fire protection services in Fiscal Year 2020,” according to the city’s letter. “That percentage will drop as costs to the City increase each year from 2020 through 2026. Remember our response into the WFSA totals about 40% of our calls.”
However, city officials say they never heard back on the proposal or an offer to meet to discuss negotiations, and were “surprised to learn of the letter mailed to the WFSA property owners.”
On May 1, the WFSA Board solicited feedback from its community members about the five-year agreement, and held a board meeting May 19 to discuss the public input. The Board met after the Beacon went to print.
In the days leading up to the meeting, a public Facebook group erupted with discussion about the negotiations, with some community members expressing concerns about delayed response times if a volunteer fire department assumed control of the service area.
“We could be facing response times of 30 minutes for both fire and ambulance as opposed to the current average response time of 90 seconds to have crews on the road en route the emergency,” commented Scott Miller, a retired fire chief with 16 years of experience as a volunteer firefighter. “The board’s action could be putting our lives at risk. Our area located outside Whitefish city limits has been served efficiently by the Whitefish Fire Department for many years.”