Facing one of the most important decisions in the district’s direction, the Hellsgate Fire Department board last week made a surprising decision.
Since current Fire Chief John Wisner announced his retirement in October nearly two years ago, Hellsgate has pursued an agreement with Payson.
The thinking, at least on the side of Hellsgate, was joining the departments, who already work on calls together, made sense.
But Hellsgate hit roadblock after roadblock. While Payson Fire Department Chief David Staub supported collaboration, the Payson Town Council was apprehensive to partner with the district.
After several contract iterations, the Payson council finally agreed to a modified chief services intergovernmental agreement in July.
While some Hellsgate board members were excited to see Payson had finally signed off on a draft, others were skeptical of Payson’s commitment and partnership interest.
So, the board pursued hiring a part-time chief as an alternative.
At the Aug. 25 meeting, the board agreed to move forward with hiring a part-time chief — abandoning plans, at least for now, of an agreement with Payson.
The district had received six applications for the part-time chief position and selected two to test. Those finalists, both from the Valley, took part in a presentation exercise and a panel review, according to Angie Lecher, business manager for the department.
The top-scoring candidate was notified and the department’s attorney is working on a contract for a part-time chief.
“It’s a little more difficult since most chiefs are full time and have certain hour and benefit expectations,” she wrote in an email. The name of the finalist has not been released.
Matt Highstreet, Hellsgate board member, was one of the most vocal in his support to partner with Payson. But even he changed his mind after meeting with the finalists.
“After the completion of the testing process for the part-time chief, my mind has changed. My mind has changed drastically and that completely threw me off guard and it was not something I was prepared for and I am glad, it was a good problem,” he said. “But now I found myself in favor of part-time chief for multiple reasons.”
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.
Under the most recent proposed agreement with Payson, Staub would have served both fire departments.
Highstreet, who served on Hellsgate’s chief replacement subcommittee, said from the beginning they agreed partnering with Payson was their preferred option.
“With the long-term direction to consolidate and form a JPA (joint powers agreement) in the future,” he said.
Highstreet said he recognizes that Payson council’s willingness to partner represents a rare opportunity and one that may not come up again depending on the political climate in either community.
“It is a potential now or never type of situation,” he said.
But Highstreet said he changed his mind recently.
He said he worries it would be difficult for an employee, like the chief, to answer to two employers.
He wondered what would happen if the Hellsgate board wanted him to do something one way and the Payson Town Council wanted another thing.
“What side do you take?” he said. “This is a problem.”
Another Hellsgate board member said he believes Hellsgate could still one day partner with Payson on a JPA.
The board agreed the best decision for the community and fire district was to hire a part-time chief to represent Hellsgate solely.
Staub said he is disappointed that the fire board did not go with Payson’s proposal, but “I know it was not because they did not see us as a great partner.”
He added, “I am happy the board had choices.”
Staub said he has known the prospective new chief for almost 20 years and looks forward to working with him again.
The department hopes to have a contract drawn up this week and ready for the board to vote on at a Sept. 9 meeting. The winning candidate has requested we hold off on releasing his name until he views the contract, Lecher said.