Hellsgate Fire Department

The Payson town council voted to approve a management contract with the Hellsgate Fire Department. The move comes as HFD chief John Wisner prepares to retire in October. The two departments have spent the last two years seeking a solution to Hellsgate's management and budget challenges. 

In this photo, Hellsgate practices responding to a structural fire in 2019.

After several iterations, the Payson Town Council at its July 23 meeting approved a management agreement that has Payson fire officials overseeing the Hellsgate Fire Department when its chief retires this fall.

If the Hellsgate fire board agrees to the contract, Payson’s Fire Chief David Staub would serve both fire departments until a more permanent solution can be found. The HFD board will meet on Aug. 8 to discuss the contract.

For the past two years, the neighboring departments have discussed ways to join operations. Ideas have ranged from a full fire merger to having a Payson battalion chief serve as Hellsgate’s chief.

Each time, the Payson council has voted against any proposal, mostly over fears of losing control of authority, equipment and money.

The two departments have sought a solution as current Hellsgate Chief John Wisner will retire in October.

The drive to find a solution that works for both departments centers on money. The HFD has struggled to cover its budget since Payson built its third station off of Tyler Parkway. Before that, Hellsgate received up to $160,000 from Payson to pay HFD to serve the east side of town.

Losing that contract did not mean a loss of work. Hellsgate still provides critical back up to Payson Fire. The two departments have an automatic response agreement because neither has enough staff to safely fight a structure fire alone.

Thursday’s council vote, however, did not go down without discussion from the Payson council.

Vice Mayor Janell Sterner had concerns the move would put additional strain on the Payson staff. She wanted assurance Payson’s needs would come first.

“We’re kinda thin already,” she said.

Staub explained this is a temporary fix, but reinforced the two departments “are successful because of our partnership.”

“I am willing to put in the effort for a short period of time,” said Staub. “This is not permanent.”

Council member Jim Ferris wondered, “What is the problem” with Hellsgate finding a chief to replace Wisner.

It’s a matter of being able to “afford the caliber of chief they need,” said Staub.

Ferris wanted assurance the HFD board will look at ways to create “more revenue.” Difficult since the state has put limits on how much property tax a fire district may levy. Hellsgate also no longer has a $1.6 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response federal grant.

“What’s best for Payson to continue on in this relationship?” asked Ferris.

This arrangement “is less entangled” than the agreement Payson has with the Houston Mesa Fire Department, said Staub. If Payson and Houston Mesa end their agreement, it would take six months to separate the staff, equipment and resources of the two departments.

With Staub as chief of both departments, he can streamline staff time and procedures to help the two departments work better together, he told the council.

But it took contract town attorney Justin Pierce stepping up to the microphone to clarify he had gone over the contract “four times” before council members trusted the deal. Pierce made sure the town could terminate the contract with 30 days’ notice “for any reason.”

“I felt that it was very well organized and protects the town’s interest,” Pierce told the council.

The council voted unanimously for the contract.

Wisner said he feels relief over the vote.

“It does make retirement easier knowing Hellsgate will not see a gap in leadership after my departure,” he said.

But the HFD board still must approve the contract. The fire board will interview two “very qualified” chiefs for a part-time position with HFD.

“Those chiefs will be interviewed prior to the HFD board’s decision on the Payson proposal,” said Wisner.

They could solve Hellsgate’s management concerns.

Contact the reporter at mnelson@payson.com

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