Plans for hiring a new Baker City fire chief will be put on hold until after the city and county have settled negotiations about how to pay for ambulance services outside the city after a federal grant expires next year, City Manager Fred Warner Jr. said Tuesday.
Rather than immediately beginning a search to replace Chief John Clark, who Monday announced he will resign effective April 4, the city will rely on a part-time interim chief.
Clark has accepted a position as fire chief of the North Whidbey Island Fire-Rescue Department in the North Puget Sound area of Washington. As he prepares to leave his Baker City job, Clark will help to transition Sean Lee, chief of the Baker Rural Fire Protection District, into the part-time role. Lee will earn about $40,000 a year for the work, Warner said.
And in the meantime, city and county administrators will continue to consider how to solve the financial dilemma facing the city’s fire department.
The two entities are in negotiations about how to make up funding shortages that are currently being paid by a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Resources (SAFER) grant, which will expire Jan. 6, 2021.
The $426,099 federal grant has allowed the city fire department to add three additional 40-hour firefighter/emergency services positions. Baker County added a $99,000 match over the three years to fund the positions that allow the city department to respond to calls outside the Baker City limits, including to the Huntington and Unity/Burnt River areas.
The community of Huntington, population about 435, is about 45 miles south of Baker City and can be reached in about 45 minutes via Interstate 84.
Unity, a town of about 68 people, 48 miles to the southwest of Baker City, can be reached in about an hour and a half over Highway 245 (the narrow and twisting Dooley Mountain Highway).
The county has for now set aside its request for proposals from entities other than the Baker City Fire Department to provide those services. And tentative plans to place a funding measure on the May ballot also has been sidelined, said Jason Yencopal, the county’s Emergency Management director.
The Baker County Board of Commissioners, which is responsible for establishing Ambulance Service Areas and choosing service providers, began preparing for the pending loss of the grant funding last May.
To start the process, the Commission sent letters of interest to 21 potential ambulance service providers. Four agencies, including the Baker City Fire Department, responded.
Only three, Baker City and two private ambulance services, Med Transport Inc. of North Powder and Metro West Ambulance Inc. of Hillsboro, submitted bids. They have not been made public.
The RFP stated that the minimum 10-year contract was to have been awarded by about June 1 after a series of public meetings to assess community sentiment on the plan.
The county put the brakes on the process late last year.
A letter to Clark from Drew Martin, county counsel, dated Dec. 30, 2019, noted that commissioners had suspended reviewing the proposals for new or different ambulance services for the Baker Ambulance Service Area.
Martin’s letter stated that “the Baker County Ambulance Service Area Plan provides that ‘requests for changes and /or new applications’ shall be presented to the Board of Commissioners for review.”
The letter goes on to say that as the current provider, the Baker City Fire Department is seeking changes to its agreement to provide services to the Baker Ambulance Service Area (which covers 1,600 square miles, slightly more than half the county).
Martin’s letter instructs the Baker City Fire Department, “as the party initiating the process,” to provide a written request of the particular changes sought.
Clark responded in a letter to Yencopal dated Jan. 31.
The fire chief stated that a review of past services provided to county residents outside the Baker City limits, but inside the Baker Ambulance Service Area, showed a cost of $253,368 per year.
“We’re revisiting those numbers and based on potential reimbursement from the feds, we likely would reduce that amount,” Clark said Friday. “The City wants to provide the service for the County at the best cost we can do it.”
The cost of serving Baker City residents is offset by the City’s General Fund through property tax collection, resulting in a zero expense to the city, Clark stated.
County Commissioner Mark Bennett has been representing the Board of Commissioners in discussions with Clark and Warner along with Yencopal and Martin.
Yencopal said discussions are continuing, not only with Baker City, but with residents of the Huntington, Richland, Halfway/Oxbow and Burnt River communities as well, to determine how best to proceed.
Halfway/Oxbow and Richland provide their own volunteer ambulance service in separate Ambulance Service Areas.
Huntington has no ambulance service at this time and service that had been provided by Treasure Valley Paramedics, a private ambulance firm, has been limited, Bennett said. Baker City also is responding to that area as available, he said.
As discussions continue, Baker City Fire Department personnel are scheduled to begin training emergency medical responders in the Huntington area next month to help the community reestablish its own Ambulance Service Area, Bennett said.
Five people have signed up for the training in the Burnt River-Unity area, which is included in the Baker Ambulance Service Area.
Huntington and Unity responders would be trained to “transport to meet” Baker City ambulances as one way to help the city save money on long-distance ambulance responses outside Baker City, Bennett said.
Another option is an “automatic launch” agreement with Life Flight to send an air ambulance for transportation from those distant areas, Bennett said.
“A lot of things are under discussion,” he said. “We really carefully want to figure out exactly what is needed.
“We have a great service with Baker City Fire. They are supportive of the rural departments with training and resources. Our goal is to put it all together,” Bennett said.