Hellsgate Battalion Chief Dave Bathke this week made a compelling case for an operational merger of the small, struggling Rim Country fire departments. He courageously advocated a joint powers agreement that could well put him out of a job — by reducing the need for so many expensive chiefs and administrators.
We know the chiefs and the five different fire boards and councils they report to must still work out crucial details in the coming months. The departments have big differences in organization — with Pine-Strawberry and Payson relying mostly on professional firefighters and the others depending more heavily on volunteers and reserves. Moreover, each community will have to carefully consider the costs and benefits of a much closer relationship. Still, the chiefs of the Hellsgate, Pine-Strawberry and Houston Mesa fire departments have done the entire region a great service by raising this thorny issue.
Almost all of the fire departments in the region have struggled with increasingly difficult budget issues. Most remain dependent on property taxes in the face of declining property values. Payson relies instead on sales taxes, but the cost of its fire department has also risen significantly with the addition of a third fire station.
So far, Payson has remained aloof from the discussions, although various council members have privately expressed support. Obviously, the politics of a joint powers agreement remain delicate. But the potential benefits are enormous — and we hope that all five departments will work hard to work out the details.
We have more than money at stake here. Wildfire remains the one existential threat to our future — whether it sweeps in from the forest or starts in a poorly defended community and spreads outward to threaten everyone.
So we applaud Battalion Chief Bathke for his clear and compelling presentation — and hope that every fire board and town council in Rim Country will carefully consider this proposal.