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City votes to keep JPA for at least a year

by EVIE SEABERG
Staff Writer | March 29, 2024 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — Lengthy discussion and dense public comment were followed by a motion to continue in the Selkirk Fire Joint Powers Agreement for another year at a special council meeting Wednesday.

Area firefighters have called on Sandpoint to remain in the JPA, saying it has led to safer conditions and a more unified response to fighting fires in the area. At the meeting, Deputy Chief Jeff Armstrong presented an evaluation of Selkirk Fires’ current status, what the future looks like without the JPA, if mutual aid is enough, and what the next steps could look like if the council pursues an enhanced model of the JPA.

During the public comment, a full room took turns voicing support for the JPA, urging the council to vote to remain in it. Commenters included residents, firefighters, firefighters’ spouses, Bonner County Commissioner Luke Omodt, and others. 

The motion passed with councilors Jason Welker and Deb Ruehle dissenting. 

While a contract for three years is typical, councilors Kyle Schreiber, Justin Dick, and Pam Duquette voiced favor of allowing the fire districts one more year to establish solutions to the city’s concerns, which include lost autonomy, complex administrative management, and financial concerns. With Armstrong saying he would champion efforts to create a more efficient JPA structure that alleviates the burden that officials say is currently placed on the city’s HR team, a council majority felt comfortable giving JPA members time to pass levies, hire more staff, and develop administrative management. Shreiber made the final motion to direct city staff to arrange for another year with the JPA with Sagle and Westside fire districts, with the potential for enhancement. 

“From the workshop and the meeting here tonight we’ve heard from the firefighters, we’ve heard from the residents: ‘They work better together,’” Dick said. “We train better together, we communicate better together, we share common community risk with fire regardless of where the fires are. I think [a public commenter] said it too — ‘fires don’t know boundaries.’ We are better as a group which we’ve heard from all of you right now. We don’t need to rewrite this whole thing — we need to fix the JPA.”

Now that data has been collected and plans for new risk assessments are in the works, Dick said it makes sense to use that information to improve the JPA.

“In pulling out of the JPA, obviously we have increased cost of purchasing more equipment that we don’t technically have — that we share,” Dick said. 

A fire authority was originally suggested by Armstrong, but according to the city’s legal counsel, that entity is not defined in Idaho Code, and therefore cannot be established. However, he said another option, which fire officials are labeling an “enhanced JPA” may be possible. This arrangement could create the solution the city and fire department seek by bringing administration in-house to Selkirk Fire, without creating a fire authority. 

While Aispuro voted to work toward a continued agreement, he also said he could support either option. 

“In a sense, it’s kicking the can down the road, but hopefully to a better solution,” Aispuro said. “I want to be clear, too, I do believe if we went to a ‘Sandpoint only’ fire [department], we could get the job done  — I’m not opposed to that either … I’m not against an enhancement, but I’m also not against a Sandpoint only [department].”

In a past meeting, Ruehle had mentioned that she would only be open to continuing in a JPA if she could be confident that it would become a fire authority. However, at Wednesday's meeting, she opposed staying in the JPA since a fire authority isn’t allowed under Idaho Code. She said she is also concerned by the lack of guarantee that an enhanced JPA will lead to better outcomes, landing the city in the same spot in a year. 

Welker said he is uncomfortable using taxpayer money to pay a third party to contract services. He supported the city and fire department pursuing the creation of a separate taxing district, which Mayor Jeremy Grimm also supported. 

“Putting it to voters allows them to make that decision,” Welker said. “An enhanced JPA in which we siphon off a quarter of our general fund to a third party — it’s not fiduciarily responsible.”

Grimm said that a primary reason he supports a taxing district model is because it solves the budget issues the city faces. He considered the city’s remaining needs — $80-100 million for a wastewater treatment plant, $20-plus million to fix its roads, and $15-20 million to fix the water system.

“I don’t know what fantasy world people have been living in for the last budget years, but there’s no money to do all that,” Grimm said. “The taxing district allows the general fund of Sandpoint to remain, and it is a question to the voters — do they want enhanced, improved service? Maintaining our general fund dollars to allocate toward these critical elements of public health, safety, and welfare — that’s my focus.”

While Grimm said he is very grateful and supportive of the firefighters, he said that the original creation of the JPA was to help surrounding districts, referring to the agreement as a 10-year experiment that had some positive elements, but noted the city had run its own successful, independent fire station until the JPA was formed in 2014.

“We’re not suddenly going to be able to fund any of the things you’ve just listed by leaving the JPA,” Schreiber said. “It’s not the firefighters’ fault we don’t have a public works director.”

Clint Frank, local 2319 union president, said the firefighters were pleased with the decision to extend the JPA because operations and training standards will remain integrated, maintaining safety for firefighters and civilians. 

“The firefighters see the opportunity to enhance the JPA over the next year to allow all functions of the JPA which include operations, administration and finance to be run as a single fire department, Selkirk Fire,” Frank said. “We hope the districts and city can come together and collectively agree to provide this as the standard for emergency services to their citizens. We are always better together than apart.”