A firestorm of controversy hit the Star Valley Town Council meeting last week over discussion of repair work needed on fire hydrants and a pump.
Several dozen residents turned out for the council meeting, packing the small town council office, which normally only sees a few residents each meeting.
The large crowd shocked the council into silence, which sat mute for much of the meeting as residents vented their frustration.
Unfortunately, an editing error in a Roundup story about the issue may have stirred up much of the controversy. The story incorrectly stated that Fire Chief Gary Hatch had proposed charging residents living within 500 feet of such hydrants an annual maintenance fee of as much as $500. Actually, the need for a fee and the amount of the fee remains under discussion.
The issue at hand is who will pay for repairs and general maintenance needed on several fire hydrants and a fire pump in The Knolls subdivision — the town, the Hellsgate Fire District, residents or a combination.
Brooke Utilities neglected the system for many years, said Town Manager Tim Grier, so Star Valley inherited the problem when it bought out the water company. The hydrants now have a pump badly in need of resealing and possibly major repairs.
The town is reportedly not legally obligated to provide or maintain fire hydrants, but the fire district doesn’t own the pumps — and can’t afford to maintain them, said Hatch.
Besides the Roundup’s error, adding confusion to Tuesday’s meeting was the realization that the town and the fire district had trouble communicating due to misdirected e-mails. Hatch reportedly sent Grier a proposal the Friday before the council meeting, but spelled Grier’s e-mail address wrong. Several
hours before the meeting Grier and Hatch discovered the error.
The men met briefly before the council meeting and discussed possible solutions, but given time constraints, could not get it before the council.
Grier told the crowd that the town and Hellsgate would come to an agreement on the issue and they could expect a proposal at the next council meeting.
“Chief Hatch suggested a cost share this afternoon, we haven’t really been able to take a close look at it. I have tried to discuss it with our water department, Robert Rippy, the manager, and I am not sure it is the final agreement that we will come to, but what I can tell you is that we are trying to find an agreement.”
Early in the meeting, Grier attempted to cut the tension in the room with a joke — “when I show up and the parking lot is full it is either because we are giving away free hamburgers or there is a volatile issue on the agenda. I don’t smell hamburgers so I am quite sure it is the latter.”
He explained that when the town bought the water system May 1, it set to work shoring it up after years of neglect.
The town poured money into repairs, hired a water manager and secured $226,000 in grants to improve the Milky Way Well and create a master plan for the water system. The plan would address short-term and long-term goals, if the town should expand the distribution system or bring new wells online.
The town didn’t need a plan though to see that the system was in dire need of maintenance, he said.
One area identified was part of the fire suppression system in The Knolls, including seven hydrants and a fire pump.
While several thousand would cover much of the immediate repairs, Grier said the cost could easily swell into the tens of thousands if the fire pump needed more work.
“We aren’t talking a lot of money here, but we are talking a cost,” Grier said.
While the town will likely carry some of the price tag, how much is up for debate.
“Our position is we want to provide a fair share,” he said. “The negotiations to this point have been what is a fair share.”
Hatch assured residents that the district would find a way to cover the cost of maintaining the hydrants and come to an agreement with the town on the pump.
He said the hydrants would stay on, insurance ratings would stay the same and Hellsgate could still fight a fire in the neighborhood if needed.
“At this point we have a well that is leaking water, but it does not affect it from operating,” he said.
After the meeting, Grier reiterated that the Town of Star Valley and Hellsgate are actively trying to work out an agreement.
He said the final agreement would likely involve a shared cost between Hellsgate and the town.
He promised that the town would not raise water rates over the issue.