Apr 292015

By Naomi Hatch

The proposed Taylor-Snowflake Fire and Ambulance intergovernmental agreement was the subject of a considerable amount of discussion at an April 21 hearing on the matter held by the Taylor Town Council.

Town Manager Gus Lundberg offered background on the proposal, which began with the council commissioning an exploratory committee made up of representatives from Snowflake and Taylor. The committee looked into the possibility of improving the fire services to the community.

The committee recommended that an agreement similar to the one in place for police services would be the best action. Committee members noted that this would allow additional permanent staff to be hired to boost the two-person 24/7 coverage that exists with the ambulance.

“The purpose is to provide a more comprehensive and streamlined fire and ambulance department serving both Taylor and Snowflake,” Lundberg noted.

The organization would be referred to as the Taylor-Snowflake Fire Department, and would be comprised of a fire chief, assistant chief, and fire and ambulance personnel who would be employees of the Town of Taylor, with the fire chief reporting directly to the Taylor town manager regarding day-to-day operations.

An eight-member Administrative Committee comprised of the town managers, mayors, vice mayors and a councilmember at large from each town would oversee the hiring and firing of the chief, and meet at least twice a year to review the finances and initiate the budget priorities.

All expenses would be net of any revenues, grants, contribution or other sources of funds provided to the department. Each town would be responsible for a percentage of the net expenses based on the respective population per the most recent census.

The departments would continue to use property presently in use by the existing fire departments operated by each town. Upon termination of the agreement, each town would be entitled to receive a percentage of property acquired equal to the percentage of the contribution at the time of acquisition.

Operational costs associated with real property would be included in the department’s expenses, with the exception that the cost associated with insuring or servicing debt for any real property would be the sole responsibility of the town wherein the property exists. Capital acquisitions of real property would be the responsibility of the town in which the real property exists or would exist.

There would be a three-year contract; thereafter, the agreement would automatically renew unless one of the towns provided the other with written notice to terminate the agreement at least 24 months prior to the desired termination of the agreement. The termination would take place at the end of the fiscal year.

Following Lundberg’s summary, Mayor Fay Hatch opened the meeting to comments from the council.

“I’ve watched this thing come together and largely it came from one side, I believe,” said Councilman Gary Solomon. “I’ve never been one to be real fond of taking on partnerships in any kind of business.” He said it doesn’t matter what kind of an agreement it is, people change their minds.

“I’ve been part of Taylor since I was born here, and I think we’ve managed pretty well on our own,” he said.

Solomon did note that this is similar to the police services agreement that has been in place for some time, and, “So far it’s worked. It hasn’t been the smoothest thing that’s ever happened in Taylor and Snowflake.

“I don’t see the huge advantages,” Solomon continued. “We’ll still have our own equipment, we’ll still have fire protection, and I know good and well we work together, we always have.”

Mayor Hatch then opened the meeting to public comment.

Former Navajo County Superior judge Tom Wing noted, “I don’t have anything to say if it’s a good agreement or not a good agreement.” He had studied the summary of the proposed agreement carefully, though, and had some questions that he distributed to the council members, asking if they had the same questions.

Solomon asked Wing to read each question aloud. He did, then Mayor Hatch asked Lundberg to go through the questions line by line and provide the answers that night. Lundberg answered the questions using the proposed agreement as his source.

Councilman Lynn DeWitt served on the committee that has been working on this for almost two years.

“We started this as a response to frustration and difficulties in the fire department,” he said, noting that the department was short on money and short on help, and it turned out that Snowflake was in the same state.

DeWitt said that discussion began regarding starting a fire district with the idea of both towns working together.

“The status quo was not acceptable, it wasn’t working…this (the proposed agreement) is something,” said DeWitt.

Councilman Carl Cosper, who also served on the committee, noted that the pulp mill had pulled out and some of the residents pulled out. “It drained us,” he said, noting that they lost revenue and personnel.

“When we first started on this thing, there were some clashes. We kept talking about it…and came up with the idea that we could join forces,” said Cosper.

“This is a great idea. I think it should have happened 10 years ago,” said Scott Vowell, a Taylor resident and firefighter on the Heber Fire Department. “I think the IGA is real progress.

“We’re one community. We need to help each other out and provide the best customer service this community can possibly have,” said Vowell.

“This IGA isn’t a miracle worker, it’s not going to pull us out of a hole immediately,” said Taylor Fire Chief Clint Burden. “It’s the right thing to do.

“Short term you won’t see savings, long term maybe you will see some savings. The most exciting thing about it is we’re putting another crew on,” and this will save time.

“Other departments shake their heads; they don’t know how we’re doing it,” said the chief. “We feel like we’ve done a great job through the years with the minimal budget and what we have.”

Councilman Jason Brubaker spoke as a business owner, saying, “You have a head, you have a leader that you have to trust.” He noted that there were likely employees who were worried that they would not get enough overtime or the shift they want, and there will be wives at home worrying. He counseled firefighters to, “Trust your fire chief, he’s getting you through this transition, and getting you employed for a long time.

“I think there are some times that are going to come where the employees have a choice of making a bitter comment or trusting your boss, and saying, ‘He’s going to get us through this,’” Brubaker concluded.

“I’d like to know, what are you saving here?” asked Monica Smith, noting she was aware they were losing one chief.

“We’re taking out two full-time positions,” said Councilman DeWitt. “It’s not saving money, it puts more people here when a call comes.”

“One thing we’re going to add is an ambulance crew,” said Vice Mayor Shawn Palmer, noting that the right thing to do is have an ambulance in Taylor and an ambulance in Snowflake, even though some residents don’t agree. “We’re not going to save money, but we’re going to increase services. We are two separate towns, one community, and one better service.”

“There’s no savings, this is not an effort to cut the budget, it’s an effort to provide services,” said DeWitt.

Snowflake Councilman Stuart Hensley noted that Lakeside and Show Low are also talking about combining services.

“The reality is, there is clearly going to be an indirect economic benefit to the Town of Taylor and to the Town of Snowflake,” said Taylor Town Attorney Karl Lautz, “That indirect benefit comes from better services, better response times.” He said he felt that this would mitigate the risks they currently have.

“One thing people don’t realize is as a firefighter, if we have a call, we have to wait for people to respond to the station,” explained Justin Kriter of Taylor Fire & EMS, noting that then they take a truck to the scene. He said that often ambulance calls come in groups of three or four, making it difficult to get the volunteer crews. “This will cut down on scene response times,” he said, though many of the crew members are dual certified as firefighters and EMT’s.

“I don’t see where this benefit will cause any improvement,” said Snowflake Interim Fire Chief Dale Call, stating that he didn’t see that having dual certified personnel would help much. “I do know that the fire department needs more people.”

Call disagreed with council members that there would be cost savings, “I want to see the best for Taylor and Snowflake,” he said.

“Combining this is not going to change how these guys act or how they respond to a scene,” said Call, noting that they do this because they love being firefighters.

“I would like to see a little clearer definition of the exact improvement.” Call stated that from what he has seen, the agreement doesn’t allow him to buy more gear or equipment. He said that currently both departments train together, but it had been noted that they are learning different techniques and the trucks are set up differently for each department.

There was a tense discussion between Call, and Councilmen Cosper and DeWitt.

Cosper asked Call how he proposed improving the situation, “by doing nothing?”

“I think you can do that with better or greater money for volunteers,” said Call.

“Then show me if that’s the right direction…If this is the best way, great. I just want to see those answers.”

Several firefighters spoke, noting that a fire district was what was needed and that they would be willing to pay more property taxes to have a district.

“There’s a lot of ways we could impose taxes to do this,” said Mayor Hatch. “We’re trying to avoid that at all costs. That’s why we’re doing this. We want to do everything we can to be a success.”

The mayor noted that he appreciated the comments and brought that portion of the meeting to a close.

A joint meeting of the town councils was to be held Tuesday evening.

The proposed agreement can be viewed on the Town of Taylor’s website.