By Joseph T. O’Connor
BIG SKY – Local voters gave a nod to public safety on May 7, approving the Big Sky Fire Department’s proposal for a mill levy increase, which will give the department $485,000 to hire five new firefighters and assist with operational costs.
For Chief Bill Farhat, the news came as a relief.
“It’s huge,” said Farhat, Big Sky’s ninth chief since the department started in 1971. “I know there was a lot of concern putting money into the fire department again, [but] it’s really nice to see that people are willing to listen. The toughest thing was getting out the correct information.”
Using all the tools at his disposal – mailings, email, and print, television, public hearings and social media – Farhat has lobbied for the proposal since last August. The department has 10 full-time firefighters and 17 volunteers currently on staff, and has been forced to operate at unsafe levels for years. Oftentimes a firefighter responds to an emergency call alone.
In March BSFD held public hearings to answer questions from the community and to discuss the implications involved in passing the mill levy increase. They were poorly attended, but even so, voters received the message Farhat was sending.
Of the 1,519 ballots mailed out to registered voters in Gallatin and Madison counties living in or owning homes in the Big Sky Fire District, 652 were returned, a 42.92 percent rate. The 10.362 mill levy on taxable property passed with 409 in favor and 241 against. Now, a home with a market value of $600,000 will cost the homeowner $91 annually, or $7.60 per month, Farhat said.
The measure increases BSFD mills from $22 per $1,000 of a home’s taxable value to $33.04, but keeps the fire district the third lowest in the Gallatin County.
At 55 square miles, the district also covers parts of Madison County, including Big Sky Resort and Moonlight Basin. A shortage of mutual aid partners, the closest being the Yellowstone Club Fire Department, has often left the BSFD shorthanded, so the department responds to calls as far south as Taylor Fork and Yellowstone National Park, covering a 200-square-mile area.
Farhat says Big Sky is unlike any other resort town because there is no local hospital, and ambulance runs to Bozeman Deaconess take firefighters, both paid and volunteer, out of the equation for up to three hours.
“We’re on these runs all the time,” he said. “It puts a huge burden on the volunteer component.”
The mill levy approval means as much to Farhat’s crew as it does to him. “The return is far beyond having more guys on a shift. It improves morale. It reinforces to them that [they’re] appreciated.”
Farhat hopes to hire four firefighters by August, pending approval by the Fire District Board of Trustees, and one more a year from now that could serve as an assistant chief. Hiring in August would allow BSFD to train the recruits by winter, its busiest season.
“They will be highly experienced when they come on,” he said. “They’re not just bodies. We need the right people.”