By KayLynn Roberts-McMurray
The Ely Times
The Ely City Council held a special meeting last Tuesday to approve an Interlocal Agreement that would combine the city and county fire departments.
With a unanimous vote, and each council member in support of this, it seemed as though it was the first time in many years this has been attempted that this agreement was moving forward.
Councilman Kurt Carson said “It’s alot different this time because there is a huge open line of communication. I think what we came up with is a really great proposal, it’s a win win for the county and the city, but at the end of the day the big winner I think is going to be the citizens of Ely and the county. The taxpayers will no longer be paying taxes to duplicate a service.”
City Administrator Bob Switzer noted the financial impact to the city will be $241,000 less in general fund expenditure with a tentative budget the city had discussed weeks prior.
Councilman Bruce Setterstrom said, “We have two new commissioners, a new council, I know this has been attempted quite a few times in the last eight years, this is taking such a huge step forward.”
County Commissioner Shane Bybee who attended the city council meeting thanked all of the council members, City Attorney Chuck Odgers and the Fire Chief Ross Rivera for their efforts on putting this agreement together.
Bybee said, “We want this to be a very neutral beneficial program. This is something that has been identified study after study that the county and the city need to work together. And in the last study that was done, this was one of the scenarios”.
The following day the White Pine County Commission met to discuss and move for possible action on the Interlocal Agreement.
The meeting room was filled with several Volunteer Fire Department Chiefs, and some paid county fire/ems staff. Many of the Volunteer Fire Chiefs spoke during public comment, expressing their frustrations and disapproval of the agreement.
Volunteer Fire Chief Ben Roberts did express that he didn’t have a problem with the first section of the agreement that proposes mutual aid, but they all had mixed feelings about the other portion of the contract.
Several letters were read from residents of Baker, and Sylvia Baker who traveled in from Baker, also spoke about the need for continued support from the volunteer fire department in Baker. As each letter was read, it became evident that many of the Baker residents were misinformed of what the Interlocal Agreement actually consisted of.
The agreement is very lengthy, but to explain it in a short version of the agreement, the purpose of this agreement is to provide consolidated Fire and EMS protection services, by using the City of Ely’s Fire Department for managerial, administrative and operational requirements in conjunction with paid and volunteer fire fighters and EMS personnel to all persons residing within, visiting, or passing through the unincorporated County and the incorporated City within the service area as defined.
This agreement would create a centralized training program, joint training and interaction between personnel, paid and volunteer fire fighters and EMS personnel, but most importantly maximize the deployment and response of resources to provide a more efficient response time to the residents of White Pine County. The contract does not mention any closure of the Volunteer Fire Departments.
If this Interlocal agreement is approved, it would take affect July 1 with a four-year duration with annual review by the city and county. The county would pay the city on a quarterly basis, $425,000. The area in which the City of Ely Fire Department would be first responders were outlined in a map that was included with the agreement. The county would lease the City of Ely one ambulance for one dollar per year. There was a discussion of the county providing the city with 1,800 gallons of fuel, but after much discussion that will be reevaluated.
After public comment, Chairman of the Commission Richard Howe asked each of the commissioners to provide input. Bybee who worked with the Ccity to put the agreement together said, “I think that there’s a real misconception about what this agreement represents. This agreement does not in any way dissolve our fire district and turn control to the City of Ely. Our outlining fire departments will still be ran by the Fire District. Looking at the one study that was done, and the one proposal that was made in the study that could be done in an effective amount of time, was a contract with the city. What this all stems from is the same conversations we had this morning, our budget is broken, especially in our Fire and EMS budget, we are going into the budget with a $357,000 deficit for this year.
Commissioner Gary Perea seemed to be upset that he was not included in the contract negotiation. He said, “I’m trying not to be upset, but as the EMS Liason I was not notified of this, I should have been involved. I am in favor of combining the city and the county fire departments and the ems, it only makes sense in an area this small. But this agreement doesn’t get us there.”
Perea asked who put the contract together, and City Attorney Chuck Odgers stood before the commission and noted that he was approached by councilman Carson, commissioner Bybee and Fire Chief Rivera. Perea said “this contract is ridiculous.” Odgers replied with, “Well this is based off the police contract that we have with the county, so while you think it’s ridiculous, I drafted this based upon the information that was provided to me, whether you like it or not, that’s not my problem, or my issue. I did what I was instructed to do, and that was to prepare a draft agreement”.
There was a huge misunderstanding by a few commissioners regarding the amount of money being paid to the city. Commissioner McKenzie said, “It needs to be clarified and broken down.” But when you look at the agreement, it was broken down to the amount that would be paid quarterly.
Commissioner Steven Stork and Howe attempted to refocus the commission by noting the positives that are coming from this agreement, and that this is a draft, corrections and changes will need to be made.
Stork said, “Let’s start discussing the positive aspects of this contract, we have some real issues with our Fire District and EMS fund it’s going in the hole, we have an opportunity to try to do something here.”
Perea continued to voice his reservations of the agreement. In the beginning he said he is in support of the city and county combining fire departments, but then he is contradicting by saying, “ I’m not sure it will work.”
There has been a constant battle between the city and county. And in the next sentence Perea notes that he is willing to sit down and work with the city to try and create a good system for both. He admitted the county fire and EMS was doing okay, but did agree that something needed to be done.
Even in April of 2014 the County Commission was attempting to combine City and County services such as the fire departments. Mike Lemich who was one of the county commissioners at that time commented that the city’s fire department was an asset to the community. He felt that the county was undermanned and struggled to efficiently cover it’s large area. Lemich said “the way we are doing things now is not getting it done. “My concern is about providing service to the people of the county and to Ely.” City councilman Marty Westland commented that he felt there was no downside to consolidating the emergency services. The council voted in favor in the past of combining services. The commission held a special meeting with District Fire Chief, Brett Waters to go over a conceptual agreement.
In 2016 and the city council attempts once again to come to a mutual agreement on the combination of the city and County fire departments. And with much effort it once again it was not workable. Commissioner Perea sent a Letter to the Editor to the Ely Times in April of 2016. Perea outlined the reasons why he didn’t support an agreement between the city and county. A portion of his letter read “the simple answer is the county does not need the city’s help on a routine basis. Perea went on in his letter talking about how the county and city should get out of the way of the two fire departments and let them do their jobs. They will both be stronger if the politics, misinformation and bullying for funds from the County to the City stops.
The county lauds that they have 105 volunteers, but on two separate incidents, not many of the county fire fighters, or volunteers were on scene to help.
On April 21, a business outside of city limits caught on fire. Dispatch contacted both the city and the county fire departments. The county arrived with two fire fighters, the city arrived on scene with 14 fire and ems members.
On May 1, a semi truck with a tire fire on Connors Pass was dispatched out to the county and the city, even though this incident was outside of city limits The city arrived with two fire trucks, six fire members and a ambulance on stand by. There were several attempts to contact Chief Wooliver to confirm the number of staff he had at this particular incident, but no return calls were made.
The agreement was tabled, and it was agreed upon for the fire chiefs, councilman Carson, commisioner Bybee and Perea and City Attorney Chuck Odgers to coordinate a meeting to facilitate the changes that need to be made to the agreement before it can be approved.