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Tensions high over Whitefish Fire Service Area separation proposal

Whitefish Fire Split.jpg
Posted at 8:43 PM, May 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-20 22:43:44-04

WHITEFISH — Tensions were high Tuesday night as Whitefish Fire Service Area board members opened discussion on a proposed split from the Whitefish Fire Department.

A large number of Whitefish residents voiced concerns Tuesday night about a possible split in fire service, which they believe could lead to slower emergency response times and homeowner insurance rate increases. In partnership, the Whitefish Fire Department covers the rural district service area which amounts to 40 percent of their fire calls on a yearly basis.

A five-year agreement between Whitefish Fire and the rural district expires in June of 2021. The rural fire district proposes the split in fire service to combat rate increases brought forward by the city of Whitefish.

A new five-year agreement proposed by the city of Whitefish would see an immediate $20,000 increase to the first semi-annual payment in the new contract, followed by a 2.25 percent increase for each of the subsequent semi-annual payments, resulting in the final year payment totaling $426,157 in 2026.

In their proposal, the rural district would establish a volunteer fire department, which they said would need 10-15 volunteers and a full-time paid fire chief. The Whitefish Fire Department has 15 full-time firefighters and eight volunteers working on a 24-hour cycle.

Acting on his own volition, Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell said he’s helping fire service area board members explore all their options before they make a final decision.

“I’m not on either board, I’m not with the city, I’m not with the Whitefish Fire Service Area," Mitchell explained. "I’m trying to just solve something as a county commissioner instead of fight."

Whitefish city manager Dana Smith was vocal at the board meeting, saying the city is willing to keep negotiations ongoing with the fire board in good faith.

“We’re willing to sit down and hear what they’d like to see, knowing that we’re also still looking for equitability in our contract,” said Smith.

Whitefish resident Susie Gordee spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, asking the city and the rural fire district to keep negotiations ongoing.

“Me personally, and I think I speak for a lot of people in there, the emotion is not directed at them it’s toward the issue, and I think they will do the right thing in there and go back to the bargaining table and do some hard work,” said Gordee.

Fire service board members said a final decision on the proposed split in service will be made by the end of June.