Hellsgate fire

The Hellsgate Fire Department is weighing its options for chief services when Chief John Wisner retires in October. Hellsgate would like to partner with Payson, but the Payson Town Council has turned down several proposals.

The Hellsgate Fire District is back to the drawing board.

After the Payson Town Council recently turned down a proposal to have the Payson Fire Department provide chief services starting in October when Hellsgate’s fire chief retires, Hellsgate’s fire board is exploring other options.

They include an alternative partnership with Payson and hiring a new, part-time chief.

The fire board was scheduled to meet Thursday night to discuss posting for a part-time chief.

Whoever is hired, they will replace Hellsgate Chief John Wisner who is retiring in October. The Star Valley-based fire district has been exploring how to move forward when he leaves.

“We saw it as an opportunity, with my retirement, to make a change,” Wisner said at last week’s Hellsgate fire board meeting.

In December, the district approached Payson and the Christopher-Kohls fire departments, neighboring districts they already work closely with, for partnership proposals.

Christopher-Kohls Fire Chief Bob Lockhart said he could split his time between the two agencies. In an email to Wisner in February, Lockhart said he could share 10% to 20% of his time, providing administrative guidance and leadership. Hellsgate would pay for the time Lockhart spent managing Hellsgate.

Also in February, Payson Fire Chief David Staub presented a proposal that envisioned sharing staff services. Staub presented this after getting approval from the council to work on such a proposal.

At a cost of $75,000 to Hellsgate, Payson would provide a battalion chief to act as Hellsgate’s fire chief. Staub would help oversee the district and provide direction to the battalion chief. Staub would also be answerable to the fire board for long-term strategic direction.

“This (battalion) chief will have their office in station 21 (Star Valley) to provide the constant leadership that a full-time/emergency operation requires,” Staub wrote in his proposal.

As part of the plan, Payson and Hellsgate would share captains and Angie Lecher, Hellsgate’s business manager, would help in Payson as needed.

Staub said Hellsgate and Payson would share the cost of the battalion chief “since the times that there is not 40 hours of work in HFD this chief can manage programs that PFD operates that needs consistent management.”

Staub said it was a win-win because Hellsgate got a new leader and Payson gained a manager without having to fund fully a new position.

“We looked at those options and thought we would be stronger joining together the agencies,” Wisner said. “Going it alone is not particularly a good option. Payson’s proposal was attractive because it rolled us up into their agency.”

Hellsgate’s Chief Services Committee recommended to the fire board that they pursue Payson’s proposal further. A detailed 16-page contract was drawn up and reviewed by attorneys.

On May 5, Staub went before the Payson council with the contract.

Councilor Steve Smith said he felt like Payson would subsidize Hellsgate and he didn’t like that idea.

Wisner said it was implied that Hellsgate had made the proposal.

“This was not the case,” Wisner said. “They made that proposal.”

The council asked Payson and Hellsgate to explore an agreement similar to the one Payson has with the Houston Mesa Fire District. Under that, Payson has control over the operations of the district.

“They are interested in determining if Hellsgate Fire District is interested in contracting for all services from the Town of Payson and not just management services. They stated that the plan should take on all Hellsgate staff so no one loses a job,” Staub wrote in an email to Wisner May 6.

Wisner said the Hellsgate fire board was not interested in contracting with Payson for all fire services and they do not believe it is financially feasible for either agency given Hellsgate’s current funds.

“Our committee will consider any additional chief services proposals you may wish to offer,” Wisner wrote Staub in an email May 14. “However, I believe only proposals that offer basic administrative and operational oversight will be given serious consideration. I would expect that if you offer a proposal that is more limited than your last proposal, it would be for less costs, which would probably be more in line with what the committee would recommend.”

In the meantime, Hellsgate said it is exploring the option of hiring a part-time chief.

In Blue Ridge, for example, the fire chief works part time for the Blue Ridge Fire Department and full time for the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department as a captain.

Hellsgate could do something similar; hire a full-time firefighter from an agency to work at Hellsgate on their days off.

“We have not explored that option too much and I would like to look into it,” Wisner said.

The Hellsgate board agreed and directed staff to look at all viable options.

Finances

Hellsgate is already at its max tax rate and relies on funds from fighting wildland fires to help stay afloat. Those funds vary from year to year depending on the fire season.

So far this fiscal year, Hellsgate has spent $1.1 million and only brought in $1 million. Lecher said they have dipped into their savings and could deplete those savings by the end of the next fiscal year.

Hellsgate’s financial woes started years ago.

In fiscal year 2010-2011, the tax rate was at $2.08 per thousand of taxable assessed value. That year the assessed value was $32.7 million. The next year, financial fall out was on the horizon and the district increased the tax rate to $3.25.

In 2012-2013, personnel costs exceed taxes collected, but the district recovered a staffing grant to cover costs.

In 2013-2014, the district was given a one-year override tax rate of $3.69. In 2015-2016, the district got a second staffing grant. That same year, the assessed value bottomed out at $21.5 million, a 51.6% drop from 2010-2011.

In 2018, the district got a six-month extension on the staffing grant, but that same year, was unsuccessful in getting voter approval for a tax override.

“Our concentrated efforts on wildland enabled us to bank a considerable amount of money allowing us to maintain staffing for this fiscal year,” according to a PowerPoint presentation given to the fire board.

Since the current tax levy does not cover operational costs, the district relies on wildland fire assignments to cover any shortfalls.

“Operational and administrative costs continue to rise. In recent years, the increases in revenues from assessed property values have been more than operational costs. However, this is only true because we have not replaced and upgraded our apparatus and equipment,” according to the presentation.

Outlook

The Good: Projected assessed values are expected to increase more than 4% in the next fiscal year, raising the assessed value to approximately $26.4 million. Based on that, Hellsgate should collect approximately $934,336 in tax revenue.

The Bad: Projected personnel costs, without addressing chief services, will be $920,146. Add in operating costs of $342,361, and the district is short $328,171.

“No matter what we do HFD still has to rely on outside revenues or reserve funds to keep operating at current staffing,” according to the presentation.

Contact the editor at abechman@payson.com

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