On one point, everyone who spoke in the district courtroom Tuesday morning, July 31, apparently agreed: Fires that occasionally spring up in homes or on wildlands in the Tahoe Ridge area should be fought. But during the hearing in the largest room at the Idaho County Courthouse, it was standing-room only for the airing of disagreements about practically every aspect of who should do the firefighting, and with what resources.
Residents decried their divide on the question for which the Idaho County Commission held a formal hearing: Is there enough support to warrant putting the formation of a new taxing district to a vote of the people who would live within it?
By state law, three main steps are involved with forming a new taxing district.
The first is taken by a petitioner, who makes a formal request to the county commission. During the July 31 hearing, Paul Anderberg and the Ridge Runner Fire Department presented their petition.
The second is taken by the county commission, which decides whether the petitioner’s request will be on the ballot. During the July 31 hearing, commissioners Skip Brandt, Mark Frei and Denis Duman were unanimous in their answer: The question will go to the voters.
The third step is the vote, which will take place in the general election this Nov. 6 – and even reaching the third step is rare in Idaho County. Recently formed districts include the Clearwater Water District formed in 2008, and, within the past five years, the Harpster Fire District and the White Bird Recreation District.
The county commission had denied a petition to form a fire district in 2008, with Brandt – the only one of the three who was on the commission then – citing 10-to-1 opposition during that hearing. The opposition was perhaps 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 in the courtroom Tuesday.
According to Idaho County Free Press archives, back in 2008, Brandt had said those who spoke in opposition had stated their commitment to “taking more active roles in volunteering and raising money.”
On Tuesday, volunteer fire chief Blaine Feinman told the commission the department has not even been able to raise enough money under a relatively new subscription program. He also said he and other volunteers have been pouring their personal resources into operations.
Many of those who spoke against the formation of a taxing district said they too have poured personal resources – time and money – into firefighting.
Some, including Timothy Hicks, said they not only have financially supported the volunteer fire department – they have procured and deployed their own equipment for firefighting.
“The people who are going to get fires out are the first responders who live there,” he said. “No different than our local police department. Who is best to protect your own home? The people who live there.”
But, Hicks said, he hasn’t been going to the fire department meetings.
“I’m very much in favor of going and helping, but I have lagged,” he said. “I have not showed up at the meetings. Shame on me.”
Others said they would not be willing to support a fire department that provides services they said have been inadequate. Others said they felt insulted by a letter the fire department sent seeking subscriptions. Others said the fire department’s commitment to using modern equipment and complying with modern regulations has made the service far more expensive than doing things the old way.
While introducing the petition to the commissioners and those present for the hearing, Anderberg said there is potential savings on homeowners insurance, referencing costs of $800 for areas with an “eight rating” for fire protection and $1,500 or more for areas without. Others who testified said their insurance providers don’t reference fire department ratings.
Only one person who testified said she wanted to hear the rest of the hearing before deciding whether or not she would support the district: Georgia Rencher, who said the fire department responded well when her home caught fire.
“People who are willing to help with all kinds of grass fires are not really qualified to go into a home where there’s dense smoke and other problems involved,” she said. “There’s too much risk to them without being trained and having the right equipment including oxygen masks and so forth. … I respect the wish to join in as a group and fight grass fires and this sort of thing, but I feel we need a fire department that can address structure fire.”
The commission took more than two hours of testimony and finally voted on a motion by Brandt, seconded by Mark Frei, to put it to the general election on Nov. 6.
Before the election, the petitioners will have to present ballot language. If approved, the district would be overseen by three commissioners – one for each geographic area within the district – and the first three commissioners would be appointed by the Idaho County Commission. The fire district commissioners would thereafter be determined by vote of the people who live within the district.
The petitioners are required to cover this fall’s election costs, estimated at $600, and had paid up before the hearing was set.
Idaho County taxpayers covered publication costs related to the hearing. Publication costs for the hearing 10 years ago were $1,500 to $2,000, according to a June 17, 2008 Idaho County Free Press article, while publication costs for the 2018 hearing totaled less than $600 for three weeks of legal notice in the Idaho County newspaper of record. An additional notice was published in the Clearwater Progress, but the bill for that had not yet been received, clerk Kathy Ackerman told the Free Press Wednesday, Aug. 1.
Along with the public comments the commissioners heard Tuesday, the file contains 41 pages of public records, including 22 pages totaling 83 signatures in opposition to the taxing district. The formal petition, which the county certified, includes verified signatures of 26 petitioners who own property within the proposed district.
Among the public records are the fire department’s financial information and report on its expenses and income, the July 31 letter from which Paul Anderberg read during the hearing, and proposed – unapproved – ballot language. These public records are available in full online at idahocountyfreepress.com.
[NOTE (Aug. 1): This article has been updated to correct the number of verified property owner signatures on the petition and to correct a detail about the department's fire protection rating. -ao]