Star Valley Ranch Council Votes to Renegotiate Fire Protection Contract
The clock is ticking for the town to reach an agreement with Mid Valley Fire District
Thursday’s special meeting of the Star Valley Ranch Town Council was highly charged at points, but ultimately the council decided to rewrite the contract with Mid Valley Fire District instead of signing.
The Town of Star Valley Ranch has been contracting its fire protection from the Thayne Fire Department since its incorporation in 2007. Changes are coming, though, as Thayne agreed at the most recent town council meeting to hand over fire protection duties and lease equipment to the Mid Valley Fire District (MVFD) starting July 10. MVFD volunteers will continue to provide fire protection for Star Valley Ranch only until mid-October unless a new agreement is reached.
The Star Valley Ranch Town Council did not sign the updated contract at their last meeting, so Thursday’s special meeting was called by Mayor Kathy Buyers. Councilman Hansen said the contract came as a surprise at the June meeting.
“The contract that we were supposed to say yea to, we received two hours before our meeting.”
According to emails from Mayor Buyers to the council, the contract was sent out 24 hours before the workshop on June 15, which preceded the council’s vote that night.
The main concerns about the contract came from Councilmen Ron Denney and Lee Hansen. They took issue with the cost and the ten-year lease of the town’s substation building to the fire district.
“That land is highly coveted for several organizations of the town,” Denney said.
A three-mill levy would be paid by the town to MVFD to provide fire protection each month. MVFD Board President Lance Skinner explained to the council that the price was determined by the board, and they hope to lower it as the department picks up steam.
“That three mill, its non-negotiable,” Skinner said.
The original three-way contract between SVR, Thayne, and MVFD presented on June 15 honored the cost SVR was already contracted to pay Thayne Rural Fire District. That price was $53,587 for one year, and then would raise to a 3 mill levy moving forward. But by not approving the three-way contract, the price SVR would pay for MVFD went straight to the 3 mill levy, which is about $100,000 more than original contract.
All three entities that would fund the district will pay the same percentage of three mill levies. Star Valley Ranch is the biggest town in terms of population and second in property value, so the actual dollar amount is larger than what Thayne or the county pays to the district.
“The fire district voted to basically have equality. They [the county] pay three mills and we pay three mills,” Mayor Buyers said.
Councilman Denney asked what Star Valley Ranch would get in return. Fire Chief Toby Merritt answered that the department currently averages 6 minutes from the time the volunteers get the call to arrival on scene in the Ranch. Skinner also said that service would be better under MVFD, though he emphasized how difficult it is to fight fires in the town.
“Star Valley Ranch is probably the most dangerous, worst place in our area to fight fires. And that’s a simple fact,” Skinner said.
Councilman Denney warned that funding the fire district could cut into other town projects, a claim that Mayor Buyers refuted. The town’s current year budget for public safety is $240,066, and the annual payment to MVFD is estimated to be approximately $157,321.06, according to the most recent contract.
Residents in attendance expressed that they would be willing to allow other projects to slide if it meant continuous fire protection.
“We don’t do a lot of fire prevention here. As far as I’m concerned, we need fire protection. The potholes in the road, that doesn’t matter. But we need a fire department,” said one long-time resident in the meeting.
As far as the substation, the original contract stated that MVFD would pay $15,000 to improve the electrical wiring and insulation of the building before parking the newest fire engine there. Mayor Buyers noted that the Thayne Fire Department had been leasing the building previously and that the repairs were much needed.
Eventually, the town council determined to do $12,000 in repairs themselves and create a lease agreement for the building separate from the contract.
Another issue the council had was the lack of representation on the fire district board. However, the Town of Star Valley Ranch is not within the borders of the fire district and therefore cannot sit on the board without the citizens voting to expand the boundary. Residents failed to pass this measure over 2 years ago.
After nearly two hours of heated debate, Councilman Ellis called for a motion to either sign the contract or rewrite it. Denney motioned to rewrite and Hansen seconded. The motion carried with a 4-1 vote with Mayor Buyers voting nay. Both MVFD and Mayor Buyers expressed their frustration at the meeting’s outcome.
“I know we work our butts off and risk our lives because that’s who we are,” Skinner said.
“I find it, for me personally, very frustrating that we’re not willing to support this fire department,” Mayor Buyers said.
The council made preliminary agreements to create a separate contract for the lease of the substation. They also plan to update the language of the payment agreement to specify the payment to MVFD will be from the “actual 3 mills of monies received.”
The stakes are high for Ranch residents, who already pay higher homeowners insurance fees than other towns due to the fire station being located over five miles from their homes. Without an agreement with MVFD, Star Valley Ranch would have to potentially contract fire protection from Afton or Alpine, or create its fire department. The latter would be nearly impossible before the 90 days of current fire protection expire.
As for the next step, the council hopes to get the Mid Valley Fire District board to approve a new contract at the board’s quarterly meeting on July 13. Skinner noted that the contract needs to be in place before July 20 for the fire district to submit the proper paperwork to the state.
The council sent an updated contract to the SVR attorney on July 5 and will vote on it following his approval next week.
**Correction from the Star Valley Independent: The motion to negotiate the contract carried with a vote of 4-1, not 3-2 and was only opposed by Mayor Buyers.