City Council held a work session Oct. 6, to further discuss the fire services agreement with the Orofino Rural Fire District (ORFD).

Councilman Mark Swayne began the conversation, “We do not want to be antagonistic towards ORFD. We need to work together because fire doesn’t care what district or what administration it aims to wipe out. As citizens of the area, we need to do what we can to protect each other as equitably as possible in regard to the financial burden and availability of equipment and manpower.”

Swayne stated he had concerns with a couple of areas of the current contract, which was created June 9, 2015 and to have been reviewed annually. “We have not looked over the contract for quite some time, though ORFD has increased their annual payment of $20,000 to the city for fire protection to the city by $1,000 per year, bringing the amount to $25,000 this year.”

The first area of concern was Item V of the contract stating that the City will give the same priority to the property of the District as to the property of the City in fighting fires, given existing water availability and additionally required response time. Swayne wanted to know how that was possible to provide the same level of service if a fire breaks out in the city, what would happen then? “Are residents of the city left without proper protection, because our guys are fighting wildfires for the rural district?”

Orofino Fire Chief Jon Hoyt responded to the council’s questions.

“If we only have a certain number of men and equipment and we have a fire here and a fire there, and I’m asked where to put my resources, I have to answer ‘All of them!’ We respond to the call that comes in first.”

Hoyt used the recent example of the Clover Fire, and the MM49 fires which was called in 22 minutes later. “When we left for the Clover Fire, I had people staged at Station I. When the call came in for MM49 they loaded the engine and headed out. When I was able to leave the Clover Fire with another firefighter to assist with the MM49 Fire we learned that we couldn’t engage on that fire until the power lines were down. So we went back to the Clover Fire and did what we could until we were able to get in there on MM49.”

Life is a priority

Former firefighter and Clearwater County Emergency Management Coordinator, Don Gardner asked to comment. “Part of the role of the Fire Chief is to first serve the life and safety risk. If there are lives in danger, that’s a higher priority. If it’s property, then you must divide and conquer. It’s not a question of where the fire is burning, but what is burning.”

Councilwoman Jennifer Dunaway asked what Hoyt would do in the event that he and his men were fighting fire 25 miles out of the city and Orofino had a structure fire here, “then what?”

Hoyt said he’d pull in mutual aid until he could get back in service. “We have mutual aid agreements with Sunnyside and Upper Fords Creek Districts, in the case we were that far out. Each call is different.”

Dunaway explained she was only asking questions her constituents would ask, “We need to know the answer. The taxpayers want to know they’re covered.”

Hoyt asked for clarification from Ernie Tuning, representing the ORFD, if Orofino Fire District (OFD) was typically the one to provide fire safety inspections. Hoyt said there was no mention of the issue in the contract, but had typically responded to the requests, as there is no one certified with ORFD to perform these tasks. Gardner agreed that it had been an assumed task and suggested it be added to the contract. There were other areas of the contract which were in need of rewording. The contract was written in 1982 and most likely carried forth from year to year. Tuning shared that the agreement for fire services between the ORFD and the OFD had initially formed in 1951.

Liability

Item VII of the contract states that “the District shall have the right to enforce any provisions of this agreement by any legal or equitable remedy, including but not limited to, specific performance, writ of mandate, or damages, and shall be entitled to costs and reasonable attorney’s fees should legal action be necessary for such enforcement.”

Swayne questioned the potential for liability suits the city may face if someone has a problem with the way our department responds.

Councilmembers in attendance were also wary of the potential for future lawsuits, Gardner thought it might be omitted altogether in the next contract. He highly supported leaving the determination of how and when to respond to the discretion of the Fire Chief, including Hoyt’s handling of our recent fires.

In addition to all said, Gardner proposed looking at a different formula for calculating the financial equity between city and rural districts.

Taxing districts

Rather than determine the cost by population, Gardner stated that taxes were paid according to property value. “We wouldn’t want the same tax for a millionaire living in a mansion as we would another person living in an old trailer.” But look closer at the taxes we pay.

City residents pay a property tax, but no fire tax, the money to create the fire budget is taken from the city’s general funds.

Orofino Rural Fire District is the only district in the county that is a Class I taxing district, meaning there is a charge for improvements to buildings and land. All the other districts are Class IV, who only tax on improvements.

Also for consideration

When the current agreement was made in 2015, the city’s fire department annual budget was just under $100,000. Last year the City went to a new model, hired a Fire Chief, and not even counting grant money or money from the Tribe, their fire budget for this year is $252,830.

In 2019, the county collected $36,099.44 from Orofino Rural Fire District residents for fire taxes, while the Forest Practices Act added $26,384.04 for a total budget of $62,483.48 for that year.

This year, the county collected $167,803.18 from the Forests Practices Act, in which $161,926 goes to Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protective Association (C-PTPA) for wildfire protection.

The Corps of Engineers actually has a sizeable amount of property which is included in the ORFD, and the Corps has a huge contract with C-PTPA.

One area for the City to take into account when looking for ways to make things more equitable financially is to re-consider the mutual aid service agreement with C-PTPA.

“The Clover Fire requested a strike team,” began Gardner, “I convinced our County Commissioners to pay for it and we are, alleviating the expenses to Sunnyside District. The state will reimburse the county for 50% of what it cost to put the fires out, therefore we were able to recover 50% of it, but we still paid for the other half.

“Once the Type II team moved in, OFD gets paid for the work they did. Sunnyside District doesn’t get paid, because it was in there district. It’s one of the gray areas of the law,” said Gardner.

“The Clover Fire didn’t qualify for FEMA due to the initial time period. There’s no money coming in for the people who lost their homes except from their insurance. It was the help of this amazing community that came to the rescue.”

Gardner was asked if he would consider helping to rewrite the current contract to better represent the needs of both parties. He said he would. He offered all of the information he had collected with the help of County Treasurer Dawn Erlewine to present his case for the council to review. No one made any indication that they wanted to inspect the extremely large stack of documents.

“I think we’re on a good path,” said Gardner, “we can come up with a better contract, to continue this partnership and make it better for everyone.”

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