By Michael Howell
At a Committee of the Whole meeting last Thursday, November 15, Stevensville Town Council members considered a request from the Stevensville Rural Volunteer Fire Department to add members from the r
ural district to the town’s roster of volunteer firefighters. Many of the firefighters from the town’s department are already listed on the rural district’s roster and concerns have been raised about the inequality in retirement benefits among all the volunteers who all respond to fires in both districts following interlocal cooperative agreements.
Stevensville Fire Chief Jeff Motley told the council members that most of the town’s firefighters are on the rural roster as well and thus benefit from both the state retirement program and the town’s. But rural firefighters who are not on the town’s roster do not benefit from the town’s retirement plan even though they all respond to the same fires whether in town or in the county. It is that inequality in benefits for the same work that has led to the request to place 21 rural firefighters on the town’s roster.
Stevensville Mayor Gene Mim Mack stated that the town’s insurer, Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority (MMIA), had expressed some concerns about the town taking on rural district volunteers. He said they only insure towns, cities and their employees and the stumbling block for the insurer was over the question of whether the rural firefighters, when placed on the town’s roster, are considered employees or not. Mim Mack said they would look at the rural firefighters being listed on the town’s roster and ask how and by whom they are hired, whether they follow the same policies as the other town employees, and who supervises them. But the main stumbling block seemed to be the lack of any administrative control of the rural firefighters who are governed by an independent Rural Fire District Board which is not responsible to the town or under the town’s authority.
“The term they used was ‘control’,” said Mim Mack. “They cannot consider them town employees if they are not under our control.” He said MMIA recognized that the two fire districts currently function together, following a memorandum of agreement, in full mutual cooperation. But the question remains whether a rural firefighter is an employee of the town or whether he or she is employed by the rural district and merely cooperating with the town. He said MMIA was satisfied that the two districts are essentially operating as one entity, but believes they are not administered as one. He said representatives indicated that if there was some official agreement involving shared administrative control of rural and town firefighters that their concerns could be alleviated.
Councilor Ron Klaphake raised the issue of the fiscal impact on the town. He said adding 21 firefighters to the town’s roster would increase the amount of money required to be placed into the town’s employee pension fund. Klaphake said that the additional retirement expense to town taxpayers would come with no additional services. He argued that the burden being placed on the town’s taxpayers would be too much. He suggested that consolidation of the districts into one district could resolve the problem. He said under current law the town could not annex the rural district but the rural district could annex the town district. He said, as an alternative, that a partial consolidation might also be achieved through some sort of cost share agreement between the town, which has a 90 mill tax base, and the rural district, which has a 300 mill tax base, to spread the costs out more equally in the whole service area.
This is not the town’s first go-round at considering consolidation of the two fire districts. It was considered by the Town Council in 1993 and then tabled with no further action. At that time it was noted that a 1935 Supreme Court ruling held that a municipality was “empowered” but not “required” to maintain a fire department. That was changed by the Legislature in 1937 when the law was amended to require every city and town in the state to organize, manage and control a fire department. This requirement was upheld by a 1985 Supreme Court case in which the Court confirmed that the City of Billings’ self-government powers did not include the power to supersede state law. Proving to be an excessive burden on small towns, however, the law was changed in 1997 to exempt a third-class city or town from the requirement and allow them to contract for fire protection services or consolidate its fire department with another fire protection provider.
The council came to a consensus that some action was needed to address the current inequities in volunteer firefighter benefits since the rural and town districts currently operate as a combined force. The mayor was directed to establish a committee to study the situation and examine the fiscal impacts consolidation or partial consolidation with cost share agreements might have on the town.
“We are in agreement that [equalization of benefits] is the right thing to do,” said Mim Mack. “Let’s make it happen.”
The matter was referred to the full Council for action.