Payson fire truck at brushfire

A rash of brush fires last week underscored the value of a joint operating agreement.

Photo courtesy of the Payson Fire Department

Both the Payson Town Council and the Hellsgate fire board have agreed to go forward with joining the two fire departments.

The Payson council Thursday night gave the go-ahead for Payson Fire Chief David Staub to work with Hellsgate Fire Chief John Wisner on an intergovernmental joint powers agreement (JPA). The Hellsgate board gave the OK Wednesday night at its meeting.

Christopher-Kohls and the Houston Mesa fire boards have yet to decide if they are also interested in joining the JPA.

It will take several months to create the agreement and both boards must still approve the deal before the fire departments merge, so the deal may not happen if they cannot work out all the details.

A JPA creates a new separate legal entity (SLE) under which the departments operate. Payson and Hellsgate would appoint members to the JPA board who would oversee its operation. Firefighters would no longer work for Hellsgate or Payson, but for the SLE.

Firefighters have expressed concern about losing pensions or benefits with a merger, but both chiefs have said they do not think that will happen. They have both also said they won’t do anything that harms the firefighters.

The merger aims to provide better service to the community at a lower cost. The departments already work together on nearly every structure fire.

A recent fire in a barn in Star Valley and then a fire in a warehouse in Payson Friday drew crews from every fire department in the area, which is common on major incidents.

None of the agencies have enough firefighters working at any one time to respond to big fires or accidents, so automatic aid agreements are in place.

A merger could potentially save both departments money by consolidating training, equipment and administration.

Mayor Craig Swartwood said the town has no choice but to look at a JPA, especially given Hellsgate’s financial troubles. Hellsgate was facing layoffs until it received a federal grant, which will run out in 2020. Hellsgate provides fire protection to Star Valley and other unincorporated communities.

Swartwood said Payson will have to help if Hellsgate can’t operate, so this is a way to get ahead before it is forced on the town.

Payson is already contracted to provide management services to the Houston Mesa Fire District and has done so for several years without incident. That agreement was renewed for another year Thursday night.

Payson also provides protection on a contract for East Verde Estates, which has a fire district, but no fire department.

Councilor Chris Higgins asked how firefighters feel about the JPA.

Staub said their goal is to have all questions answered before the boards vote on merging the departments.

He said citizens likely won’t notice any difference in service with the JPA, but the firefighters will have a new employer. That will require putting some safeguards in place, Staub said.

No firefighters are expected to lose their jobs with the merger.

Wisner said he hopes to have an agreement drafted in the next 90-120 days for the boards to review.

Other JPAs operating in Arizona currently include the Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority in Prescott Valley, Copper Canyon Fire and Medical Authority in Camp Verde and Arizona Fire and Medical Authority in Sun City West.

Contact the reporter at abechman@payson.com

Covers breaking news, cops, courts, fire and the Town of Payson.

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