Washington County proposes to consolidate fire districts on SR-18

ST. GEORGE — Washington County officials are considering consolidating fire service for the communities on state Route 18 in an effort to provide improved service and safety. They met with representatives from the fire agencies and communities in that part of the county Tuesday to discuss plans and get input from those who’ll be directly impacted by it.

In the fire photo, the pictured firefighter is one among many who responded to a brush fire along SR-18 by Winchester Hill, Utah, June 4, 2020 | Overlaid on the photo is a map of the proposed “Mountain” and “Western” fire districts, courtesy of Washington County, St. George News

“All of this is about trying to provide the best service for the people on the SR-18 corridor,” Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson said as the meeting got underway.

Attending Tuesday’s meeting were fire chiefs, firefighters and fire district board members representing Enterprise, Gunlock, Pine Valley, Central, Dammeron Valley, Diamond Valley, Veyo and Winchester Hills. Representatives for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Gold Cross Ambulance were also present.

Six separate special services districts make up fire districts that tend to their area’s fire needs and support one another when necessary through mutual aid agreements. However, while some of the districts run smoothly and provide ample service, others may not be due to various factors.

“We need to meet some minimum level of service,” Iverson said.

What the County Commission proposes to do is merge the six fire districts into two larger districts. One district would include the greater Enterprise area, Central and Pine Valley, while the other would include Brookside, Veyo, Gunlock, Dammeron Valley and Diamond Valley.

L-R: Washington County commissioners Adam Snow and Victor Iverson speak to representatives from the various fire districts on SR-18 about consolidating them into two larger districts in the near future, St. George, Utah, Oct. 26, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The city of Enterprise and the community of Winchester Hills are presently not counted as parts of the proposed fire districts. In the case of Winchester Hills, Iverson said this was due to the community’s closeness to St. George and the mutual fire aid that came with that.

However, the details of the proposed fire districts – the northern one tentatively named the Mountain district and the southern one the Western district – could be subject to change in the future as crafting and formalizing the consolidation process unfolds in the coming months, Commissioner Adam Snow said.

The commissioners said they anticipate that while there will be new fire chiefs for the newly consolidated districts, previous fire chiefs would become fire captains within the new district.

Though merging into a larger fire district can provide greater access to manpower, resources and a larger financial base, attendees had questions about how the districts would be governed.

Three of the current fire districts have elected boards, while the other three have boards with members appointed by the County Commission.

Iverson said the two new fire districts would have boards appointed by the commission, as the commission had found people are more apt to submit applications for the job rather than go through an election process. He also said running board elections can pose a financial burden to smaller communities.

Various fire chiefs, firefighters and fire district board members from the communities along SR-18 meeting with the Washington County Commission about the proposed consolidation of their districts into two larger ones, St. George, Utah, Oct. 26 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The Northwestern Fire District, which serves the areas around Veyo, Brookside and Gunlock, is currently running an election for seats on its board and held a primary election prior to that. A representative of the fire district at the meeting vouched for the quality of the board candidates while also noting the primary election process cost the district some $5,400.

A general concern about the county appointing board members was maintaining local representation. Iverson and Snow said board members would come from the areas they represented, and may also come directly from the current boards.

“I think that is a challenge to this process though; what the governance will look like,” Iverson said.

Another concern attendees had was summed up by one of the Pine Valley district board members when she asked, “Why change if it isn’t broken? And we’re not broken.”

Enterprise Fire Chief Brenden Moody, who had just voiced his support for elected boards over appointed ones, said the various fire districts were already acting in a consolidated manner through their mutual aid to each other.

In this file photo, a Santa Clara firefighter mans the pumper truck and watches over the crew as they contain the heat on the perimeter of the Cinder Pit Fire, off Hwy 18, 2 miles north of the Cinder Pit. Brookside-Veyo, St. George, Utah, July 26, 2013 | Photo by John Teas, St. George News

“It’s not working well in all communities,” Snow said. While some fire districts were functioning quite well, others were falling behind and not able to meet all the services their communities may otherwise be paying for through taxes or related fees.

Just how the districts would be financed was another issue that would take time to figure out, both Snow and Iverson said.

As taxing agencies, the fire districts are able to impose taxes or fees on the residents within the service area in order to support and maintain services. How that would look, and what ways may be used to help keep rates low, have yet to be worked out, the two commissioners said.

“We won’t have all the answers today,” Iverson said, “but we want to keep it as low as possible.”

A way one of the pending fire districts could subsidize costs was through contracting with federal land agencies to help fight wildfires, Snow said following the meeting.

Snow pointed to a $146,000 wildland fire-focused firetruck in Central that wasn’t used much last year due to the lack of a fire crew to go with it. A crew could have been fielded from neighboring agencies and used, but that didn’t have either due to some perceived territorial issues.

Crews from multiple agencies respond to 400-acre brush fire burning near Veyo, Washington County, Utah, Sept. 27, 2020 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Wildland firefighting under federal contracts can be very lucrative, Snow said, and with the creation of a larger district that would be able to pull from a wider pool of firefighters, the truck could both be used and generate money for the fire district.

“Some of those firefighters make a ton of money,” Snow said, adding that since the fire district owns the firetruck, it would make money from the contract. While the results of this may not be seen immediately, money from the wildland fire contracts could be used to help keep taxpayer costs down within the district as time progressed.

An additional point brought up during the meeting was Central’s having obtained a medical transportation license with the intent to apply to the state to provide ambulance service in the area.

Currently, a southern portion of SR-18 is served by Gold Cross Ambulance while the northern half is served by Enterprise Fire and Rescue.

The county is proposing to put two full-time firefighters cross-trained as medics at the Central Fire Station who would aid with medical calls.

“We just want to make the service better,” Iverson said. “It’s important to the County Commission that we keep your districts and communities safe.”

Tuesday’s meeting was just the beginning of what will be a multi-month process, Snow said, though the commission plans to vote to officially begin the consolidation in November.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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