HAVRE, Mont. (NMB) – The Hill County Rural Fire District 1 Board convened on Tuesday morning for a special meeting.
The Board said that no progress had been made since last month’s regular meeting regarding a new fire suppression agreement between Havre and the District.
The City of Havre has already chosen to terminate the current agreement, effective July 1st, 2021.
Board Chair Steven Jamruszka sent a letter to Havre officials on May 26th requesting the reinstatement of the current contract or an extension to the current agreement, but Havre Mayor Tim Solomon said that the letter did not address his concerns that were brought up at last month’s meeting.
This came after Jamruszka held a joint meeting with Solomon and Havre Fire Chief Mel Paulson on May 19th.
If a new agreement is not approved or an extension is not made to the current agreement this month, those residing in the District will likely face increased fire insurance costs. In addition, the Havre Fire Department would no longer be obligated to suppress fires in the District. Solomon and Havre Fire Chief Mel Paulson said they would still respond to fires, but they would end up billing the District directly for all costs.
“Most likely (Havre Fire would still be dispatched), but it changes things because we would bill (the District) directly as far as any response outside of the city without a contract,” Solomon said. “There’s mutual aid agreements but we don’t have one (with the District).”
“Mutual aid can be requested,” Paulson added. “But it is up to the person being requested of what they are going to send and what they are capable of sending. That’s number one. And number two, the incident commander has to have eyes on the scene before the request. So therefore, if there is a structure fire with life safety involved, by the time you got an incident commander – and that requires an incident commander that has the ability to be an incident commander to request for incident command – there could be a major time lapse if there is life safety involved.”
The issue at the heart of the disagreements continues to revolve around enforcement of the fire codes. Solomon says that there needs to be wording in a new contract that states who is responsible for enforcement, adding that he believes buildings have been put up within the District in the last few years that are not up to code, with the State Fire Marshal not being notified of the need to inspect the buildings.
“If the (Fire Marshal) is not able to get here because he doesn’t know he needs to get here, because a building is going up without him knowing it, that is the District’s obligation,” Paulson added.
Members of the Board said their interpretation of Montana Code Annotated is that the Board does not have the power of enforcement. This led to a contentious conversation between Paulson and the Chairman:
Jamruszka: There are, through the Department of Labor, processes for permits and they are also shipped over to the Fire Marshal for review, and then they come back. If there are any complaints in between all of that, there is a channel that goes up on both sides, either through the Department of Labor, Department of Justice, or the Fire Marshal.
Paulson: The problem is they are not getting them from the Fire District.
Jamruszka: I bet they will now.
Paulson: That’s what needs to be in a contract.
Jamruszka: The process is already there.
Paulson: That’s what we’re saying. Obviously, there’s something that needs to be worked out. If you put it in the form of a contract, that’s a place to start. And irregardless, the contact is aged and the District needs to come up with another contract, irregardless of however you feel. If you don’t want to put any sort of enforcement in there then put it down in the form of a contract. A 1993 contract that’s being renegotiated for 2021 I don’t believe is acceptable.
Jamruszka: I see the old contract as being very much valid and very much in vogue, as far as the current rules and regulations.
Solomon said he disagrees with the Board’s interpretation of the Montana code, and encouraged the Board to set up a meeting with an Attorney to discuss this further and work on writing a new contract.
“You need to talk to an attorney. You’re citing one section (of Montana code). There are other sections that gives the District a whole lot of power. You need to talk to someone to understand the differences. That’s all that I’m asking.”
Solomon said he understands that the Board members are new and still learning, but said the issues with the contract have been known for years and have yet to be dealt with.
“That’s why we’re here. We’re trying to get something done before July 1. An attorney has to review it and everything else, which we’re asking (you to) present us with a contract. You guys are asking for a service. Get us a contract so we can present it to our City Attorney to approve or disapprove.”
Board member Susann Tharp attempted to break up the impasse by showing a willingness to work out the issues.
“I personally see no problem with another contract. Because if nothing else, but a show of good faith. Now we have a Board that is actually going to do their jobs. You have to admit (the City) has been getting a raw deal for a long time…(They didn’t) have anyone to talk to and couldn’t get ahold of anybody (on the Board when they weren’t meeting)…Let’s not be at loggerheads and let’s (have) both sides bend a little bit and get this taken care of, people.”
The Board requested an extension of the current agreement in order to get a contract worked out, and Solomon said he is open to that if the Board can get a meeting scheduled with an attorney.
“The way it is now isn’t working,” Board member Courtney Tait said. “We’re going to need to make changes of some kind. I can’t say what, because I don’t know. But I don’t see a problem with giving us an extension on this thing. You want us to come up with a new contract with legal advice, in how many days?”
An extension to the agreement would have to be approved by the City Council. They are scheduled to meet on Monday, but it is unclear if an extension will be on the agenda. If it is not on the agenda, a special meeting would have to be called to get the Council to approve the extension before the end of June.
“I’ve been trying to move this along. I’ve seen this coming,” Solomon said. “I’ve been at this for three years with this group. And I understand the three (Board members present) are new, but if you sat down with the right person, I don’t think it would take that long. At least get it started, is what I’m saying. Give us something and we’ll look at an extension.”
Rural Fire District 1 is essentially a ring around Havre in which the Havre Fire Department provides services under the current agreement.
The next Rural Fire District 1 Board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, June 8th at 11 AM in the Timmons Room at the Hill County Courthouse.