The Ely City Council voted to stop sending it’s fire personnel (paid staff and volunteers) to emergency situations outside the city limits after a contract agreement with White Pine County terminated at midnight last night.
According to Fire Chief Ross Rivera, the county commission on Wednesday, knowing that the contract was set to expire the following night, tabled the issue rather than offering any kind of an extension.
“To me, it’s like we got left holding the bag due to their lack of making a decision of any sort,” Rivera told the council.
City Attorney Chuck Odger said that District Attorney Mike Wheable had asked him on Friday if he could re-write an extension of the agreement but that Wheable was unable to make the Wednesday afternoon meeting and that the commission was “uncomfortable” moving forward without his input. Odger told the council that if the city were to respond to an incident outside of its jurisdiction without an agreement in place, and if one of their fire personnel were injured, workman’s comp would not cover the afflicted party.
Councilmember Bruce Setterstrom said that the commissioners’ knew that the contract was reaching an end and yet they waited until the last week to discuss the contract and then they tabled it. Setterstrom was insistent that city fire personnel not cross city lines.
Odgers said that while he was concerned of what might happen to county residents served by the city, his primary concern as city attorney had to be the safety of fire department employees.
“Our legal requirement is to protect our employees and volunteers,” he said.
Councilmember Kurt Carson said that the city was willing to work with the county but that their backs are now against the wall.
Setterstrom reiterated that the city had given the county plenty of time to negotiate but they chose not to. He suggested that if the city continues to work without getting paid by the county, they’ll continue to “abuse” the city.
Odger’s, again, stressed that fire personnel would not be covered by the city’s insurance without a mutual aid agreement and that the city could face liability issues if one of them were injured. Odgers said that the county commission didn’t want to continue the contract, which gives the city $6,000 a month to respond to county incidences.
It was noted that the city responded to 22 call outs in the last six months since the agreement was penned, and that the county, which is obligated by law to respond to city emergencies, had only been called out once.
The council discussed offering a contract that paid the city between $2,000 and $3,500 a month for service, with the county paying for anything over those costs.
“We should come up with an agreement to give to the county and say, ‘this is the bottom line, take it or leave it,’” Setterstrom said.
Carson said that it was unfortunate that everyone got too busy to be able to put a contract together and that it would be nice have the negotiation teams come up with a fair price for everybody, but he was reminded by Rivera that it wasn’t up to the city to act.
“Whether it was one call or a dozen calls, it’s the county’s responsibility,” Setterstrom said.
Odger said that even if the city unilaterally extended the contract, as of midnight there is no contract. Odger said that the soonest the county could meet to extend the contract or approve a new one, would be next Thursday.
“After midnight tonight, we don’t cross city lines unless the county comes back with an agreement,” Setterstrom said, making a motion that passed unanimously. “They have a responsibility to come to the city.”
Setterstrom said though, that if there were situations where there was confusion as to the jurisdictional boundaries, then the city should respond.
After passing the motion, the council further discussed contract terms that should be offered the county and the effects on residents who live in county areas, particularly Mineral Heights and the areas south of Ely that will have their services endangered by the county’s lack of intent. Councilmember Jolene Gardner ended the discussion by stating that if the county wanted to negotiate, they should come to the city.
“I don’t think we should do anything,” she said.
“It’s up to he county commission to fix the problem they created,” said Councilmember Sam Hanson.
Odger said that public safety is a very important issue the council has been grappling with and that the county saw no value in the city’s contribution.
“They don’t feel what the city brings is worth anything,” he said, noting that his thoughts were with the people who are no longer going to be able to be quickly serviced.
He suggested leaving the decision of whether or not to respond to emergency situations outside the city borders to Rivera but Setterstrom shot down that idea saying it was too much of a burden to put on the fire chief.
Rivera, who had a look of despair on his face as he stood at the podium, was asked by Councilmember Jolene Gardner if he was happy.
“I’m never happy with this type of controversy,” he said, later stating that he wished the city and county could work together.
“We’re here to help people,” he said.