Teton fire district

Fire district commissioners Scott Golden, Jason Letham, and Bob Foster meet on July 27. On the board behind them is a wish list from the Driggs fire station renovation steering committee that includes items like "seven bedrooms," "admin break room," and "laundry room." 

District and county will negotiate dispatch funding 

On July 17 the Teton Fire Protection District sent the Teton Board of County Commissioners a letter stating it would be halving its contribution to the county dispatch center. Even though the fire district quickly walked back the declaration, the prospect of decreased funding to dispatch brought renewed scrutiny to the fire district’s proposed $5 million budget.

Upsetting the Apple Cart

Dispatch, which is housed in the law enforcement center, is manned 24 hours a day and handles 911 and other calls for the sheriff’s office, firefighters, and ambulance service, as well as transferring calls to other agencies such as Idaho State Police and Idaho Fish & Game. In Teton County’s draft 2022 budget, dispatch is allotted $533,000. That does not include the $129,000 for 911 communications, which is mostly funded by 911 fees from phone companies.

The fire district is a separate taxing district from the county and manages its own budget, which in fiscal year 2021 was around $3.6 million, half of which goes to salaries. The district has been paying around $100,000 per year to the county for dispatch, but that amount was based only on an annual request from the county. There is no formal agreement dictating what percentage the district pays.

This year the district committed to paying $105,000 to dispatch, but in its letter the commissioners said they would cut that to $50,000 in 2022.

“We believe this reduced amount is still meaningful and provides financial support to assist in the operation of the center,” the letter reads. “We are just at a point financially where we cannot afford to contribute a greater amount.”

The letter prompted some strong words from the county commissioners, who have been working to pare down the county’s budget. During a discussion on July 26, they described it as “ridiculous,” “disrespectful,” “hard to believe,” and “pretty unimpressive.”

At a meeting only a day later, however, the fire commissioners reconsidered. Fire commissioner Bob Foster said that he had “developed heartburn on the issue.”

“If we need $50,000 from some place, I now think we can get it from some other place than dispatch,” Foster said. “I can think of multitudinous times where dispatch kept my butt safe out in the field and kept my brain working. From that perspective, taking a chunk out of dispatch to fund something else doesn’t really sit well with me.”

Fire commission chair Jason Letham pointed out that a one-year analysis of dispatch’s call volume showed that only 7 percent of calls were directed to fire and EMS. He acknowledged that law enforcement communicates with dispatch differently and more frequently than firefighters, and that both agencies often respond to major incidents. However, he agreed that the district should continue to fund dispatch at the same level.

“We have to remember that, aside from the cost, dispatch is a high turnover, high frustration job, regardless of what we think we oughta pay,” Foster said. “If dispatch is poorly paid or poorly trained, we’re going to pay the price for that. What do we need to pay to make sure we consistently have well-trained and well-staffed dispatch?”

The three commissioners approved reinstating the $105,000 line item in the draft budget.

“My biggest regret for us all is, if the district is comfortable with paying 25 percent or $105,000 or whatever the number is, then I wish we wouldn’t have sent the letter and changed the budget,” Fire Chief Bret Campbell said to the commissioners. “We really upset the apple cart and at the end of the day after more thought, if we’re comfortable with it, it’s just unfortunate we didn’t have this discussion first.”

The fire commissioners and county commissioners each agreed in their respective meetings that both bodies should sit down together, along with the sheriff’s office, to reach a new understanding, although each commission felt the other should come to them.

“It seems like the principles of mutual respect and open dialogue would go a lot further for everybody,” Campbell said.

In a letter from the county commissioners to the fire district on July 28, the county invited the district to a “collaborative conversation” at the courthouse. “We do hope we can meet soon to resolve this matter amicably,” the letter reads.

Increased Revenue

The fire district has taken a couple actions in the past year to bolster its revenue. In August of 2020, the district passed a resolution to recover its “foregone” taxes totaling $450,000.

In Idaho, local taxing districts are allowed to increase property tax collections by up to 3 percent a year. Foregone taxes are property taxes that could have been collected in previous years, but were not.

According to county meeting minutes from 2016, when the district was making its case to the county to dissolve the ambulance service district and bring ambulance services under the fire umbrella, fire commissioner Letham told the county commissioners that the fire district had no intention of taking its foregone or raising taxes.

The ambulance service district was previously administered by the board of county commissioners, who had a contract with the hospital for services, but the fire district fought to take over EMS in a contentious debate in 2015 and 2016. The fire district claimed it would save taxpayers money by providing ambulance services. In May of 2016 the county commissioners voted 2-1 to make the fire district the sole provider of EMS, and the ambulance taxing district was terminated in 2018.

In July, the fire district successfully negotiated for an increased contribution from Teton County, Wyoming. Through an agreement with the Wyoming county, Teton County Fire & Rescue serves Alta and Grand Targhee. Wyoming had been paying $200,000 annually for the service, but Chief Campbell has argued that number should be higher because calls over the state line represent over 12 percent of the department’s response. Teton County, Wyoming agreed to pay $480,000 next fiscal year with small increases each year after that. This will enable the fire district to hire three new firefighters to meet population growth and demand in the valley.

Pay Raises

In addition to hiring new members, the district will pay its current firefighters more, in an effort to attract and retain qualified staff. The district commissioned a wage study this year and found that the district is 9.7 percent below market median for base salary, through comparisons with other agencies in the region. Firefighters in Teton County have a lower base salary than in places like McCall, Jackson, Ketchum, and Big Sky, although they earn more than their counterparts in places like Burley and Pocatello.

With that data in hand, the Teton County Firefighters Local 4667 union secured a 3.5 percent raise to the base salary as well as a 5 percent cost of living adjustment, meaning a new firefighter will now earn over $60,000 before longevity pay, paramedic pay, and insurance benefits. The fire chief will see a salary bump from $110,433 to $121,365.

Teton County, Idaho, which is also struggling with employee attraction and retention, gave sheriff’s deputies and dispatch operators a 3 percent cost of living adjustment and all other employees a 2 percent COLA in the draft FY22 budget. On July 27, the commissioners decided to leave open the possibility of a retroactive 1 percent bump for those other employees at the end of FY22, as long as the county received all the revenue expected.

Station Renovation

In addition to rising salaries, another big future cost the fire district is preparing for is a major renovation of its Driggs station. Station 1, which is also the administrative headquarters of the district, was built in 1990 and upgraded 20 years ago. The fire district has put together a steering committee composed of a commissioner, the chief, and several firefighters to play out renovations. A study from Headwaters Construction indicated that the price tag would be between $2.9 and $4 million.

According to Campbell, a charitable foundation has expressed interest in making a sizable donation to fund the improvements, but the district will have to foot the remainder of the bill, whatever that ends up being. That’s why the district budget includes a placeholder of a $2 million facilities donation and an equivalent $2 million expenditure.

Campbell mentioned a long-held wish of the fire district that the county would collect fire impact fees on new development to fund capital improvements; in the past Driggs had a fire facilities impact fee but the city eliminated it in 2015.

The district hopes to put out a request for qualifications for an architect and a project manager at some point this year.

“This is a philosophical concern—how does the general citizen looking at this think about an 8.5 percent salary increase, 9.5 percent insurance and benefits increase, four million dollar building, a $200,000 new apparatus, all in the same year,” Commissioner Bob Foster wondered during the July 27 meeting. “That seems like a lot, and we need to be cognizant of that.”

Letham responded, “We have been saving money as a fire district since day one, for 25 years, against a rainy day, a rolled apparatus, all of these what-if scenarios. We have built up a savings account, invested our savings into a program to build it, gone out as a district on wildland fires to serve other locations and earn income from that. We have a nest egg that can help us upgrade our facility and take care of our own...To be fiscally responsible and dutifully responsible to taxpayers, we have to take care of our firefighters.”

Meanwhile, the county has not budgeted for much in the way of capital projects for FY22. The initial payment for a $2.7 million judgment on a 13-year land use case against Burns Concrete left the general fund low on emergency cash.

“All the departments have been good about not making big requests this year,” said county clerk Kim Keeley, who is tasked with putting together the budget. “We have basically no big projects happening next year, which is unfortunate. Austerity will be the name of the game for a year or two.”

The county’s budget hearing is on Aug. 23 at 9:15 a.m. in the commissioners’ chambers of the courthouse. The fire district’s budget hearing is on Aug. 24 at 4 p.m. at the Driggs fire station.