By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor
BIG SKY – At 4:36 p.m. on Aug. 20, two members of the Big Sky Fire Department were dispatched to a medical call at the Yellowstone Park border on Highway 191, 18 miles south of the station. Jason Gras and Matt Kendzorski, a volunteer, responded to the scene, stabilized the patient and transported him via ambulance from the park entrance to Bozeman Deaconess Hospital, 75 minutes away.
That left firefighter Matt Mohr alone at the Big Sky Fire Station to handle calls.
At 6:55 p.m., Mohr received a report of a structure fire on Spruce Cone Drive. He responded in the engine, requesting assistance from volunteer and off-duty BSFD firefighters, and from the Yellowstone Club Fire Department.
Mohr worked to contain the fire as best he could until Dan Sheil and Greg Clark reached the scene, coming from home on overtime to help, along with volunteers Don Loyd and Bart Mitchell.
“It shows how tenuous the system can be,” says Big Sky Fire Chief William Farhat, who says the department doesn’t have the resources it needs. “If it wasn’t the house fire, it could very easily have been another medical call.”
Farhat recalls another incident this summer when he left the scene of an accident in Gallatin Canyon to respond to a second medical call, where he was the only medical responder for 40 minutes.
“It’s a very weak system,” Farhat said.
This summer was a busy one for BSFD, with calls in June and July 88 percent higher than 2011, and in August 54 percent higher. The department last year responded to 500 calls, and Farhat estimates this year it will see 550.
This is potentially a major problem, Farhat says, because “volunteer numbers have been dwindling since 1999, and at the same time, our call volume is going through the roof.”
The department currently has 10 paid firefighters and 10 volunteers. Two of its regular volunteers resigned in the last month, something Farhat says is a major blow. The department has half as many volunteers as it did five years ago.
During the winter season, from Thanksgiving through April 15 when the ski resorts are operating, the call volume is comparable to that of a 10,000-person town like Belgrade, not one of 2,000 like Big Sky, Farhat said.
While Gallatin Valley fire departments have resources to draw on from nearby, Big Sky has only the Yellowstone Club’s department, which takes at least 20 minutes to respond and can only do so if it’s not already on a call.
Due to Big Sky’s remoteness, an ambulance call typically lasts three hours. This is a big reason it’s hard for the department to maintain volunteers.
“That’s half your day, and we can have two or three at a time during the winter,” Farhat said. “That’s a severe impact on someone’s life, and not that many people are willing to take that much time.”
Big Sky Fire is not alone in its dwindling volunteer numbers. In fact, Farhat says, it’s a national problem due in part to new rules instituted in the late 90s that made it more time consuming to train volunteers.
Even with these disadvantages, the department reduced its response times in the last year. “We’re getting out the door much faster, and we’re getting to you much faster,” Farhat said.
Lack of long term funding
Funding for the fire department comes from a combination of property taxes, Big Sky Resort Tax and ambulance fees.
The department received $382,000 for operations from the Big Sky Resort Tax Board this year; another $931,000 came from combined Madison and Gallatin county property taxes; and Farhat is budgeting for another $300,000 from ambulance fees.
The property tax portion is less than half of what other comparable departments in the area receive, Farhat said, and makes it the third least funded in Gallatin County for property tax support.
While resort tax is designed, in part, to support emergency services such as fire and medical, it isn’t within the power of the resort tax board to make multi-year appropriations.
“One resort tax board cannot bind the next,” said RTB Chairman Les Loble. “We cannot say, ‘We’re going to fund [any one organization] for three years.’ We can say, ‘We’ll fund you for this year.’ … That being said, all you have to do is look at history of appropriations to see that each year the fire department has been funded.”
At strategic planning sessions this fall, the RTB decided it’s interested in long term planning and plans to hold two community meetings this winter to gather ideas from the community on planning and “the sorts of things the resort tax board should be funding,” Loble said.
One potential solution would be if the RTB could issue bonds, then it could have money for a large project beyond the scope of year-to-year appropriations.
Asking for community support
In an effort not to rely so much on resort tax, the department requested a mill levy increase in 2008, but due to poor timing with the economic downturn, voters in the Big Sky Fire District turned it down.
“This is not a new problem for Big Sky,” Farhat said.
He forecasts $3 million worth of capital repairs or replacements will be needed in the next 15 years, and says the money to cover those expenses simply isn’t there. That, and he’d like to hire five more firefighters to help handle the growing call volume, something that, together with operational cost increase, would be a $485,000 annual increase to the department’s budget.
He’s turning to Big Sky residents to ask for help.
Farhat presented in front of the Big Sky Rotary on Sept. 26, proposing a property tax increase of roughly 11.27 mills to help cover this cost.
Millage rates are based on the taxable value of a home. So, for the 11.27 mill levy increase would mean that a house with a state-assessed market value of $400,000 in the district would have its property taxes increased by approximately $122 a year, or just over $10 a month with the proposed 11.27 mill increase.
“I think in general it was very well received,” said Rotary member Kirk Dige, a real estate broker with ERA Landmark. “With the number of volunteers shrinking, … it’s natural for it to become more of a paid fire department.”
Farhat is also planning community meetings this fall, hoping to talk with as many stakeholders as possible and get a sense if this is something residents of the Big Sky Fire District would support. If so, the proposed mill levy increase could go out to voters in May 2013.
Dige acknowledged this is a controversial issue.
“Nobody wants to pay more taxes. It’s going to be a tough sell,” he said, noting that the school will also potentially be proposing a mill levy, and that Big Sky property taxes have been higher since the 2009 real estate reappraisal.
“Historically, a lot of folks have felt like the tourists are the ones who have the big impact on the Fire Department, so they should pay for the services, which they do … It’s kind of a classic dilemma. Which pocket should it come out of? If you’re going to have a first class resort, you need first class services.”
Opinions vary on whether the funding should come from resort tax or property tax, Dige said. “But really what it comes down to, is you pay one way or another, or you don’t have the service.”
Quite a bit of the funding would come from second homeowners, Farhat says, since they make up 70 percent of Big Sky’s property owners.
“I want to emphasize that this is a proposal,” Farhat said about the levy. “If it’s not supported, we’re going to have to change it, and we will.”