Sunday, August 09, 2020

Misconceptions and disinformation about Whitefish rural fire

by Myra Appel
| June 14, 2020 1:00 AM

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” – Confucius

I’m going to call this thing Whexit… Whether or not the Whitefish Fire Service Area should end their contract with the City of Whitefish for fire services. Of the 3,200 or so letters sent out to Service Area residents, about 5% responded. We have the Stayers, the Leavers, and the Know-Nothings.

The Stayers: Stay the course! Don’t lose the contract with the City! We like things the way they are. The vocal minority.

The Leavers: We don’t want to give our money to the City of Whitefish! The City Council doesn’t represent us. A few not-so-vocal in the minority.

The Know-Nothings: What the heck are you talking about? The other 95% who don’t have a clue what’s going on.

Much like Brexit, there are a lot of misconceptions and disinformation floating about.

My insurance rates will go up! If you live in the Whitefish Fire Service Area, your ISO rating – an esoteric rating from 1-10 that most insurance companies use to determine your insurance rates – is a 10, 10 being the worst. Why is it 10? Because you live more than five miles from a fire hall. Will this change? Not unless you move your house closer to a fire hall – or a fire hall moves closer to your house. (Ask your insurance agent).

We’ll lose our ambulance services! No, you won’t. This is a fire contract. The board of the Service Area is authorized to contract fire services, not emergency medical services. That is contracted by the Flathead County EMS with various agencies in the County.

The Service Area board has been hoarding money! No, actually the board has been running more or less on autopilot for years. All they had to do was write a check to the City and meet once a month to approve bills. They’ve never had a plan. Now they have a million dollars, which by today’s standards is not really much money – the average fire engine costs between $500,000 and $750,000. Now is the time for them to step up to the plate and decide what they should do for the next five years with that money.

Our property taxes will go up! The Service Area is financed by a flat fee, much like the Solid Waste District. It has nothing to do with property taxes. Which brings me to a new suggestion: why NOT form a Special District?

A Special District can be formed by petition – yes, it is that simple. Call it a crazy dream, but the 8,000 or so residents of the Service Area could send a petition to the Commissioners to form their own Fire District. That would give the Service Area the ability to collect mils, which are more equitable. Think about it – is it fair or equitable that that large expensive house at the north end of Whitefish Lake and the single-wide trailer 10 miles from Whitefish pay exactly the same rate? With mils, we could not only hire a good, experienced fire chief who could provide direction to the board, but we could also build satellite fire halls and hire our own fully paid staff. But this would take time and effort on the part of the board. And without the encouragement of the residents of the Service Area, I doubt this will happen. We will continue to give all of our money to the City of Whitefish without any beneficial change in the services received or representation of our interests by the Council, who we do not vote for.

Don’t doubt it for a minute – the City doesn’t really want what’s in the best interest of the Service Area. They want your money, period. They just gave their employees an across the board 4% wage increase. They have to pay for that somehow.

My suggestion to the board is to use this additional year after the contract ends to make a real, substantial five year plan for the future of the Service Area. Get more input from your constituents who have the best interests of the Service Area as a whole at heart. You can always renegotiate that contract at the end of the year if you don’t feel this is feasible. You, the board members of the Service Area, hold all of the cards in this game. Please play them wisely.

—Myra Appel lives in Whitefish