Bigfork’s Fire Chief Mark Thiry remains “cautiously optimistic” that voters will approve a request for a mill levy to generate $350,000 annually, despite the failure of a mill levy request this week by the nearby Evergreen Fire District.
Thiry declined to discuss the differences in the two mill levy requests, but said the failed levy certainly makes him a bit nervous about the upcoming May 8 election.
“But it is what it is,” Thiry said on Friday. “I tell folks here my opinion is cautiously optimistic. The other thing is, you can never bet on elections.
“I have been to every civic group around here and I say our theme behind the mill levy is, ‘We want to maintain the services you have now. We’re not asking for anything luxurious. We just want you to keep what you have.’”
The Bigfork Fire Department has six full-time and 20 part-time employees, along with five volunteers, working out of three fire halls. The staff is a mix of emergency medical technicians and the more highly trained paramedics, which is important since about 80 percent of their calls are for emergency medical services, Thiry said.
“We pretty much follow the national trend,” he added. “The other 20 percent are wildland and structure fires, accidents and hazmat calls.”
They serve a population of 4,500 that triples to about 15,000 during the summer months. Thiry said it’s not unusual to get more than one call for service at a time, and they have received four or five calls simultaneously.
“I come from the metropolitan Green Bay area with a population of more than 200,000 people, and at times Bigfork’s call volume is way higher than what I was used to,” Thiry said. “During my first summer, my pager wouldn’t stop going off. It was crazy.”
In the past decade, those calls for service increased 200 percent, with a record 922 calls in 2017, up from fewer than 100 in 2008.
The department already receives about $270,000 annually from a mill levy, which is bolstered by payments from people who pay for their services. Thiry calls the current financial situation “unsustainable,” which is why they’re seeking the levy.
“We did a study and made a 10-year strategic plan with what we want to do and where we want to be,” Thiry said. “Then we looked at the current situation to see what we would need to accomplish our 10-year plan, and that dollar figure is what’s going before the voters.”
If the levy passes, the money will be used to increase wages to retain more employees and to eventually replace vehicles. It would increase annual taxes by $40.50 on a home valued at $200,000.
If it doesn’t pass, Thiry isn’t sure what the impacts may be, but he’s considering a “tiered response,” starting with getting rid of paramedic services and going back to basic level EMTs. One of the main differences is that paramedics can administer drugs that EMTs can’t.
The next tier would be eliminating around-the-clock staffing, and having responders come from their homes or having fewer people run on calls.
“The nuclear option is to disband EMS — there would be no more Bigfork ambulance,” he said. “That’s not going to happen right away.”
But if it does happen, that means one of the other 10 ambulance services in the area — a mix of volunteer and paid professionals — would need to respond to medical calls. The closest is Lakeside Fire, which is across Flathead Lake; they’ve also been known to call the Smith Valley Fire Department, which is west of Kalispell. While Kalispell is closer, it typically is known for its medical response by helicopter instead of by ambulance.
“We go down the Swan Valley almost to Condon; we’re the only ambulance between Kalispell and Condon,” Thiry said. “If we can’t provide those services you have two options: Call for a helicopter, or expect an hour wait for an ambulance.”
They’ve also turned in the past to Evergreen Fire Rescue, but they already run on more than twice as many calls as Bigfork.
Evergreen had asked voters to approve a mill levy to raise $1.15 million for staffing and equipment, with a 3 percent increase each year for inflation. It would have raised taxes on a $200,000 home by $168 per year. A five-year levy passed in 2014 and provides about $145,000 per year, but it expires in June 2019.
Evergreen fire district is struggling to continue to provide current levels of service and deal with increasing call volumes, personnel turnover, and challenging revenue shortfalls.
Craig Williams, chief of Evergreen Fire Rescue, wasn’t available for comment on Friday. However, he issued an email statement via his administrative assistant thanking the community for its support during the election.
“Although the election was not successful, our resolve and commitment to our community has not changed,” Williams wrote. “We will continue to do our very best despite our funding challenges that unfortunately still remain. We will listen to our community, re-examine our levy request and make changes as necessary to ensure our continued support.”
On its website, Evergreen Fire Rescue noted that the 2,645 calls for service in 2017 exceeded its current staffing capabilities, and they’re anticipating more than 3,000 calls this year. The department noted that its six structure and wildland trucks are anywhere from 10 to 43 years old.
With the failure of the levy last week by a vote of 1,222 to 953, Evergreen Fire Rescue expects to have inadequate staffing and delayed response times, continued employee turnover and increased fire insurance rates for the community, among other items.
While not speaking directly to the two levies, Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said the first responder programs, especially those that provide emergency medical services to rural areas, are in dire need of support from communities.
He noted that 20 years ago, these services were provided by volunteers. But as the number of calls for service increased from one every two or three days to one every two or three hours, the volunteer ranks dwindled and agencies turned to paid professionals to provide services.
They initially thought they could get by through billing for services and some help from fundraisers and counties, but that model hasn’t succeeded. Curry estimates that only 30 to 40 percent of the bills from emergency services are ever paid.
About half of the emergency medical service providers in Flathead County are staffed by volunteers, with the other half — including Bigfork and Evergreen — using paid professionals.
“I think Evergreen failed because people don’t want to pay more taxes, but they also failed to understand the services and how they are provided,” Curry said. “If you operate a grocery store and you’re not paid for 70 percent of your product, you would not be in business long.”
His department relies “fairly extensively” on the emergency medical service responders in Flathead County. But if mill levies don’t pass and services become more limited, Curry said they’ll adapt.
“If nothing else, somebody still will come to take care of you or your loved one. But it may not be as quick, as close and that person may not have the same level of training,” Curry said. “That’s a step backward.”