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Fire protection for South Hutch OK'd

By Ken Stephens

The Hutchinson News

The Hutchinson City Council on Tuesday approved an agreement under which the city of South Hutchinson will for the first time begin paying Hutchinson for limited fire protection.

But the two cities see the amount -- 1 mill or about $22,170 -- from vastly different perspectives.

Hutchinson city officials say the Hutchinson Fire Department has lent mutual aid to fight fires in South Hutchinson for years without compensation. The $22,170 doesn't begin to approach the value of the service provided, and they want South Hutchinson to join Fire District 2 and begin paying a proportional share of the cost of the Hutchinson Fire Department's $8 million budget. That, City Manager John Deardoff said, would be about $498,000 in 2015.

South Hutchinson, on the other hand, says it has only about 10 structure fires a year and would actually need a Hutchinson aerial ladder truck only about twice a year. At that rate, South Hutchinson Fire Chief Mike Patterson said, $11,350 per actual use of the ladder truck "is pretty expensive from South Hutchinson's perspective."

Under the agreement approved by the Hutchinson City Council on a 3-0 vote -- Mayor Cindy Proett and council member Bob Bush were absent -- Hutchinson will respond to all structure fires in South Hutchinson with one aerial ladder truck and one chief officer. It will not respond to other emergency calls in South Hutchinson.

The City Council of South Hutchinson, which will begin paying for the service in 2015, approved the agreement a week ago.

The Hutchinson Fire Department currently provides full protection not only to the city of Hutchinson but also to a large rural area called Fire District No. 2. Based on the property valuation of Fire District No. 2 as a percentage of the total valuation of the district and the city, property owners in the district pay about 21 mills, or $1.5 million, for fire protection.

South Hutchinson's fire department is currently made up of seven part-time firefighters and about 11 volunteer firefighters. The paid firefighters work 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. At nights and on weekends the fire department reverts to a volunteer department.

Hutchinson Fire Chief Kim Forbes said that merging the two departments would make sense, but the idea of going from paying nothing to paying $498,000 to join Fire District No. 2 was the stumbling block for South Hutchinson.

Patterson said he actually talked with Forbes about the costs of South Hutchinson joining Fire District No. 2 about two years ago, when he was doing some consulting for South Hutchinson.

Patterson presented that information to the South Hutchinson City Council, "and the decision was not to pursue it at that time. ... There's been no further discussion about Fire District No. 2, and I don't see it in the near future. The near future could be three to five years."

However, the Hutchinson City Council members who approved the deal Tuesday -- Jade Piros de Carvalho, Jon Daveline and Nancy Soldner -- did so on condition that city staff communicate to South Hutchinson "our long-term desires" that South Hutchinson join Fire District 2.

The discussions leading to Tuesday's agreement on limited protection were initiated by Bush a year ago when he was mayor. Those discussions were prompted by a career-ending injury suffered by a Hutchinson firefighter during a fire in South Hutchinson.

Forbes said his firefighters entered a large burning storage building northwest of Sixth and Main in South Hutchinson on Dec. 19, 2010. Because of dense smoke, the firefighters could not see that they were on a raised platform, like a loading dock. The firefighter stepped off the edge of the dock, fell and broke a leg. The firefighter, Forbes said, was unable to work, in treatment and later on light duty for about a year before taking a medical retirement.

The Hutchinson Fire Department responded to that fire alarm under a mutual aid agreement under which various cities and rural fire districts in Reno County agree to help each other.

Hutchinson city officials are clearly frustrated that Hutchinson shoulders the cost and risk of providing professional fire protection to South Hutchinson, which to this point has paid nothing for it.

Former Hutchinson City Council member Ron Sellers said he was disturbed that South Hutchinson is going to pay only $22,170 for fire protection, saying the value of the service far exceeds that. He accepted the agreement as a first step, but said that if the council approved, it "should be with the caveat that the city of South Hutchinson needs to decide very soon if it wants professional fire protection."

Deardoff said he wasn't "proud" of the $22,170 South Hutchinson has agreed to pay, but said it was difficult to say, "We're not going to respond."

Piros de Carvalho expressed similar frustration, saying, "We're not going to let a house burn down, but it's not fair."

"It's not where we want to end up," said council member Nancy Soldner. "I hope that in the next year the parties work toward more equitable compensation."

Although Bush was out of town on business, he said in an email that it was the best deal Hutchinson could make at this time with South Hutchinson. He said the city couldn't threaten to stop responding to fire alarms in South Hutchinson without thinking about "real world" moral considerations.

"Is it ethical for us as a nearby sister city to stop a response from our firemen to South Hutch when lives may be at risk?" Bush asked. "How can we contact the nursing home in South Hutch and inform them that we won't respond to their fires even though we know South Hutch does not have a ladder to service that high a building? Do we contact the industrial businesses in South Hutch and say we won't respond to their fires even though we know that South Hutch doesn't have the adequate bunker gear or level of Hazmat training to respond to industrial/chemical fires?"

(c)2014 The Hutchinson News