On Dec. 10 the Ely City Council, along with the Ely Liquor Licensing Board and White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation, held their regular twice-monthly meeting at the Ely Volunteer Fire Hall.
Among the topics discussed and acted upon were animal control surrender fees, handicap parking, and locomotive maintenance schedules. The Liquor Board also approved a liquor license for a new business to be opened on Great Basin Boulevard.
The city engineer, B.J. Almberg, reported on water issues including an uphill pressure problem and the Ely Shoshone Tribe’s application to tap a city water line for service, which the council approved. City Auditor McKay Hall reported on his fiscal audits of the city and the railroad foundation, reporting generally good news and satisfactory progress toward their objectives. An excavating contractor requested to change his scrap metal recycling agreement with the city, from a month-to-month deal to at least a year-long contract, which is now under consideration.
Yet the evening’s most contentious subject became the issue of fire services. Since incorporation, the City of Ely has provided free fire department coverage to the unincorporated area directly south of the city limit.
Councilman Bruce Setterstrom motioned that the city cease providing fire protection for the area after Wednesday, Dec. 16, the date of a special joint meeting of the Ely City Council, White Pine County Board of Commissioners and the White Pine Fire Protection District.
“The city has been providing fire services to the area for free,” Setterstrom said. “If we don’t give them a date and don’t respond, the city becomes liable. By giving them a date, the city becomes not liable. Pay for what you use.”
Setterstrom’s proposal drew criticism from several members of the public, present at the meeting specifically to oppose him. Their concern centered on the cutoff of services during the holiday season, a time of heightened fire risk.
County Commissioner Mike Coster made his opinion known during public comment.
“Don’t use the nuclear option,” Coster said. He believed a compromise was in order, such as a cutoff date of Dec. 31.
“Christmas is a bad time to cut off service,” said a woman who identified herself as Betsy Lopez of Mineral Heights, outside of the city limits.
Another man vocally opposed Setterstrom’s plan.
“If someone gets hurt, I’m coming to you, Bruce,” he said, wagging an accusatory finger at the councilman until Mayor Melody Van Camp gaveled him away from the podium.
Councilwoman Jolene Gardner pointed out that the county fire department is currently notified first of a fire or medical emergency in the affected area.
“We’re not calling Ely City Fire first, anyway,” Gardner said.
Deputy City Clerk Jennifer Lee also contributed to the public comment.
“There’s a difference between dispatch calling Ely City Fire last and them refusing to come,” Lee said.
Eventually, Setterstrom amended the cutoff date of his motion to Jan. 1.
The issue was further discussed at the aforementioned special joint meeting Dec. 16. Hours previous to the joint meeting, the County Board of Commissioners voted at their regular twice-monthly meeting to accept a previously negotiated interim inter-local agreement in which the county would pay the city $6,000 per month for continued fire and emergency medical services coverage from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2016. The city council will most likely approve the agreement at their Dec. 21 meeting.
Once the joint meeting convened, discussion centered around the complicated legal process for consolidation of city and county fire services. District Attorney Mike Wheable and City Attorney Charles Odgers provided basic advice and guidance to the council and board, but admitted they needed more time to research the issue. Odgers asked for at least three to four weeks.
Chairman of the Board Gary Perea insisted that everyone perform their due diligence and thoroughly investigate their responsibilities in the process, including adequately informing the public.
“We want to do this the right way,” he said.
“The citizens of Ely are going to want to know what’s in it for them,” Wheable added.
Commissioner Richard Howe suggested investing in an independent consultant to study the issue. After that, the city and county can decide on consolidating their fire departments or negotiating a contract for services, much like the city contracts with the county sheriff’s office for law enforcement.
“The fire district can contract for services,” Odgers said, “but contracting and inter-local agreements are not interchangeable. They are not the same thing.”
The council and board agreed that each needed to create their own negotiating teams, to include volunteer firefighters from their respective departments. The county board agreed to start forming their team at their next meeting Jan. 13.
Perea suggested another joint meeting Mar. 1 for the negotiating teams to start the process.