Hot Springs Rural Fire District board unchanged after election
Funding and contracts still a hot topic
By Charity Maness
HOT SPRINGS – The Hot Springs Rural Fire District (HSRFD) held their January 2023 meeting at the Mueller Center on Thursday evening, Jan. 19, with an open forum style communication with members of the audience.
HSRFD board members Mark Siebenthal, Patty Nikkila, Gene Weisser, Doug Nikkila, Don Olstad, and Karen Meston were present.
After approving the agenda and the minutes from the Nov. 29, 2022, meeting, HSRFD Treasurer Karen Meston requested that the Hot Springs Volunteer Fire Department (HSVFD) budget be prorated to 70 days after October 22, 2023, for a total amount of $25,000. This was tabled until after the election later in the meeting.
Meston presented the board with invoices from Angostura Volunteer Fire Department (AVFD) totaling $4,092 minus a $3,000 grant received for fire shelters which were previously purchased by AVFD and invoiced to HSRFD, leaving $768 to be paid to AVFD. The motion passed with Weisser and Olstad voting no.
“I don’t like coming in cold on these things,” said Olstad, regarding his receipt of invoice information given to him just prior to the meeting and his previous request that all board members be in receipt of information that would be addressed at the meetings.
Following the vote, discussion of funding for future AVFD fire shelters continued with questions raised about the potential need for additional/replacement shelters. Meston clarified that shelters were in place in each fire engine at AVFD and additional fire shelter needs can be addressed as the needs arise.
Elections were held with each nominated member retaining their 2022 position: Mark Siebenthal, President; Patty Nikkila, Secretary; Don Olstad, board member; Gary Romey, board member.
HSVFD Chief Dar Coy reported to the board that the contract issue is “not a dead issue yet.”
“We have done some things that you have asked us to do, yet we are not getting what we were promised.”
Meston claimed the invoices received from HSVFD were outside of the contract amount and the board is awaiting justification for the invoices.
“Do you remember the meeting we had,” asked Coy to Weisser, “where you said I’ll give you ¾ plus additional expenses?”
“I remember,” said Weisser, but publicly questioning the validity of the expenses and existence of receipts. “Do you have receipts?”
“We are not going through this again,” said Coy, and thanked the board.
Siebenthal announced that “2023 will be run a bit differently” and handed the floor to Olstad.
“It’s unsustainable,” said Olstad of the current tax supported levy system without a financial foundation to stand on.
“We are tied to a levy,” he said, “so I am making a proposal to recommend to make a motion to pay service contracts to the contracting entities that are providing service.”
His proposal would include saving 50% in a capital rainy day fund “that would leave 50% of the levy for distribution. We can dictate whether it was a consumable or maintenance to district equipment. 50% service contracts off the top go to FD. We don’t care where it goes as long as the service is provided. We aren’t running a fire department.”
Jerry Brammer spoke to the board questioning that approach. “A department is supposed to give budgets then the district gives the money they asked for in the budget. You don’t have a fixed amount of money.”
“Yes we do,” said Olstad.
With Weisser agreeing, saying that “we have a pretty good idea” what funds will be year to year.
Accessibility to the potential rainy day funds was addressed.
Departments can access excess needed funds via the newly proposed and passed motion of a purchase request form which will require prior purchase request from board to receive approval for expenditures outside of the original funds distribution.
Upon receipt of a purchase request submitted by a fire department, the board president can call a meeting to address accessing emergency funds for the purchase request or it can be addressed at a regularly held HSRFD meeting, with each purchase request to be reviewed by the board.
Weisser, a proponent for this new funds distribution proposal stated, “we give you the money, we leave you alone and we don’t have all this fighting. I will not write a check if I don’t know what it is for, so this would get rid of all of that, if you need equipment, you come with a purchase order form and we approve it or not.”
Meston questioned the legalities of such a fund distribution stating that each department’s access to grants and other revenues should be considered during budgeting.
The meeting continued in an open forum manner with multiple speakers from the audience engaging in questions, conversations and insights with the board.
Clarification of legal status of fire department contractors and government entities came into question with Meston providing a section of laws governing a fire district.
“Most of it is subject to interpretation,” said Weisser, “You have an interpretation and I have an interpretation that is completely different.”
Coy pointed that the district obtained worker’s comp insurance and insurance for AVFD, yet this was not done for HSVFD; pointing to one difference between a contracted service provider and a district run fire department.
“You have a fire department in your district,” said Les Madsen, Minnekahta VFD. “Your fire department is Angostura. HSVFD is a contract, they are not within your district; they are contracted with the district.”
Madsen also spoke of the years of mutual respect and mutual aid efforts by many surrounding agencies. “We have worked for 40 years to quell all this and now we are going back into it. We have a new department in our district, please learn from our history.”
The law also came into question by an audience member. “The law that she has there is for fire departments that are run by the district board, HSVFD is a contract entity, those rules you read apply to government entity not a contracted fire department.”
Additional questions were raised pertaining to response and incident command (IC). While AVFD can respond to wildland fires within their boundaries, it was unclear if they are currently qualified to respond to hazmat, structure fire, vehicle accidents or more, calling into question which department would hold the responsibility of IC.
While many in the audience responded stating that the department on scene that is most qualified is the IC, with no concise clarification from the board, yet each department with volunteers present stated they would respond to any calls if called no matter the boundaries.
The meeting eventually returned to the district’s funds and future funding plans.
Olstad questioned why there was so much money in the account.
“Almost all money is capital money,” said Meston, stating that the funds are primarily there due to “COVID and a contractor who didn’t want to deal with us so we weren’t motivated to have capital outlay.”
Both AVFD and HSVFD expressed a desire to not have to wait until levies are collected to receive funding and hoped that funds currently saved could be allocated in advance of the levy as both departments have bills coming due.
• Treasurer Karen Meston requested an appointment of a team to conduct internal audits, Mark Siebenthal and Doug Nikkila volunteered.
• Siebenthal requested a February meeting to address Olstad’s proposal for board funding efficacy
• Olstad requested a committee to amend HSVFD contract to include clarification of district boundaries
• Coy requested to be in attendance at next executive session
• Next meeting TBA