64K question: How much is fire protection worth?
Politicos wrangle over funding
by John Hales
The Times-Independent
Dec 21, 2017 | 3169 views | 0 0 comments | 82 82 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Moab Police Department Detective Sergeant Craig Shumway grabs a Moab Valley Fire Department water line to help fight a structure fire Wednesday, Dec. 20 near 100 South and 100 East in Moab. The cause of the fire is still under investigation. 
			   Photo by Greg Knight
Moab Police Department Detective Sergeant Craig Shumway grabs a Moab Valley Fire Department water line to help fight a structure fire Wednesday, Dec. 20 near 100 South and 100 East in Moab. The cause of the fire is still under investigation. Photo by Greg Knight

The Moab Valley Fire District is at odds with Grand County in trying to get what district officials consider fair funding. Negotiations over the county’s fire-protection payments to the district have been going on for several years. But the tenor of discussion among fire officials has become frustrated, almost adversarial, with those officials wondering — jokingly but aloud — if the department should stop responding to calls out in the county.

“You’re laughing … But that’s about where we’re at,” Moab Valley Fire Commission Chair Tom Shellenberger said Monday, when district officials discussed a $50,000-maximum funding proposal offered by the county.That proposal was a 50-percent cut from what the county offered a short time ago for 2018, said Moab Valley Fire Department Chief Phil Mosher. Mosher said the reduced amount wouldn’t truly or fairly cover the cost of services the department provides to the county. Now, Mosher and fire commissioners are instead counter-offering with a proposal of their own: $1,000-per-call and a $50,000 minimum.

“We just want to make sure we’re providing the best service to everybody,” Mosher said.The district is not a service of either Grand County or the City of Moab. It is its own quasi-governmental entity with defined boundaries and taxing authority. Those boundaries encompass, though fairly narrowly, the county’s population center of Moab and the immediately surrounding environs. The district is funded primarily by property taxes it assesses within those boundaries.

At issue is that the fire department provides service beyond its boundaries. Mosher said it’s the only department that can provide certain kinds of service, or service to certain areas. There is a Castle Valley Fire Department, but it isn’t certified to fight structure fires, although they do. There is also a Thompson Springs district, but the department consists of only one man, Mosher said.

Further, some areas of the county aren’t located in any of those districts. MVFD, in effect, covers it all — and with more than fire protection — assisting with vehicle extrication, a dive team, hazardous materials, trench and mine rescue, and assisting other agencies like search and rescue.

“Anytime something was needed in this county … the fire department stepped up and did it. We trained the people, we bought the equipment, we’ve done the response,” Commissioner Shellenberger said.

For instance, Shellenberger said, the district purchased a fire truck — Engine No. 2 — for the sole purpose of going on calls out in the county. At three-quarters of a million dollars for a fire engine, according to Mosher, the county would be hard pressed to provide its own fire protection.

Until this year, according to records on file in the Utah State Auditor’s Office, the county had been paying only $10,000 per year, “Which doesn’t even cover one breathing apparatus,” Shellenberger said.

In 2015, the county agreed it ought to pay more. For the 2016 budget, it allotted $20,000, but then never paid up, again according to state auditor records, as well as Mosher. The county tried to make up some of that a year ago by budgeting, this time coming through with $30,000 (though Mosher had requested $50,000). By MVFD’s analysis, Grand County should be paying about $270,000 into the district, however.

In 2017 the district had a budget of $727,000. According to fire department statistics compiled by Mosher, the department responded to 223 calls in a 12-month period between June 2016 and June 2017. While the budget year and Mosher’s call-statistic timeframe don’t match up exactly, one can roughly interpolate an average cost of around $3,200 per call. Of those 223 calls, 64 (or 28 percent) were outside of the district in Grand County.

Twenty-eight percent of the calls, twenty-eight percent of the budget, right? At the nearly $300,000 for 2018’s budget, absolutely not, say both county officials and Mosher. But finding the middle ground for both county and district, between $30,000 and $300,000 has become its own kind of $64,000 question.

“Even at $1,000 per call,” noted Shellenberger, “at 64 calls, that’s $64,000,” which is significantly higher than what the county appears willing to pay, while also being far below the average cost per call.

After Mosher informed the council members with his price tag of more than $200,000 earlier this year, the county indicated it might be able to come up with another $160,000 this year; then for 2018, the amount would be $105,000.

“They can’t meet their budget,” Mosher explained.

“So the fact that they can’t meet their budget ... we’re screwed. Is that right?” Shellenberger said.

At least that’s one possible interpretation of comments made by Grand County Commissioner Greg Halliday.

“We don’t have a big surplus. We’re not flush with money,” Halliday said Tuesday.

With a population of only 10,000, Halliday said, Grand County — because of huge influxes of tourists and visitors to the area — is forced to provide services that one would expect for an area three or four times that size.

“We’re trying to balance our citizens and the county, what we’re requiring them to support financially,” Halliday said.

Halliday recognized the same problem that district officials do: Some people in the county are paying for the fire protection they receive, while others aren’t. “The people in Castle Valley and Moab feel like they’re subsidizing.”

In the Moab Valley district, 54 percent of the calls in that June-to-June period came from within the district. But near the same time, during the current budget year, the district’s taxpayers have funded 88 percent of the fire department’s budget.

Halliday’s solution is to redraw district boundaries to get everyone in the county inside of, and paying taxes to, a district.

But if that happens, Moab Valley district residents would still take a hit, just from a different source, Mosher said.

If the district’s boundaries are expanded, Mosher said, homeowner’s insurance rates would go up due to a downgrade in a fire-danger rating (“ISO rating”) used in calculating insurance premiums. Mosher said such a downgrade would certainly happen.

County Council Member Halliday said, “I understand that, but I really don’t see any other answer for it. The county is not going to create its own fire department. So by bringing those [non-district] areas into one of the districts, that would increase the amount of funding that would come into those districts. We’re having to cover those areas anyway — it would be nice if they were paying for that fire protection.”

Mosher agrees with the ends, but not the means. He said he would prefer that the county continue to help fund the fire department, but at a rate that is more commensurate to cost, and which could be supported by a tax or fee assessed to residents who are currently paying nothing at all for fire protection.

“The reality is we have to do something,” Shellenberger said. “We can’t expect the people in the district to pick up the whole tab.”

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