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Hamilton council considers open burning in city

By Michael Howell

Hamilton City Councilor Al Mitchell’s suggestion that the City consider allowing the open burning of leaves and yard debris within the city limits has drawn opposition from the Fire Chief, the Parks Director and some other councilors. A city ordinance currently prohibits open burning within the city limits, except for barbeques and certain recreational fires. Mitchell believes that burning leaves in the fall should be an option and can be done safely.

Hamilton Fire Chief Brad Mohn wrote a letter cautioning the Council about the dangers involved in open burning, especially in alleys where flammable materials and dry combustible vegetation is found right up against many buildings. He notes that the remaining ash piles can clog the city drains and burning on the street can damage the asphalt.

Open burning was allowed in the city up until the current prohibition was passed in 2009. Asked how many fires had been started prior to that time by burning piles of leaves getting out of control, Mohn could not remember any in the last 25 years. But, he pointed out, the County got 300 plus calls about fires in the county last year to the 911 call center.

“Even if a fire doesn’t spread, how many calls will we be getting?” he asked.

Police Chief Ryan Oster agreed that open burning in the city could lead to a lot of calls and responses that are not needed. He also noted that certain restrictions would still be required such as no burning on asphalt and no burning in alleys. He said that smoke was also a big issue.

Parks Director Terry Cole agreed, saying that the biggest complaints that the city had to deal with when burning was allowed was due to smoke bothering people, especially those with respiratory problems.

Councilor Jenny West agreed, noting that she had once left home with all her windows open due to sweltering temperatures and a neighbor decided to burn leaves. When she returned her entire home was filled with the smell of smoke.

City Attorney Karen Mahar noted that Ravalli County had an air quality monitoring program and that dioxin levels from wood fires were identified as a major contributor.

City resident Jim Reeves said that he worked many years in process safety management and believes that leaves can be safely burned in yards. He said it made more sense than waiting and hoping that someone would come and take them away or to have to pay to take them to the dump.

Another person suggested that maybe they could limit the time for burning to specific days with specific timelines so people could know when there might be smoke in their neighborhood.

The matter was kept in committee for further discussion.

Another item that drew significant comment was the upcoming budget for the coming fiscal year. Special Projects Director Dennis Stranger said that some cuts in expenses were now being considered to the preliminary budget under review. That budget projected $9.5 million in revenues with $11 million in expenses with the difference being made up by use of reserve funds. At a previous meeting Stranger said that the City had been anticipating these expenditures and had a lot of cash on hand to meet those expenses. He provided a three-part breakdown of the $11 million in expenses as $3.1 million to personnel, $3.5 million for operations, and $4.4 million to capital expenditures.

Nonetheless, the proposed budget allocates $2.6 million in property tax revenues. That is an increase of 83% in taxes over last year’s budget of $1.4 million. Mayor Jerry Steele has now proposed keeping that increase down to about 44% by reducing the amount of money held in General Fund reserves and making some reductions to the proposed Justice Center allocation and eliminating some items such as the cemetery software purchase. Currently reserves are forecast at about $1 million. Steele suggests that $750,000 in reserves should be enough.

Stranger noted that the city accumulates reserves not just to have a savings account on hand but to expend on projects as well.

Councilor Joe Petrusaitis disagreed with the budget proposal, saying, “We are biting off more than we can chew.” He suggested putting off the engineering project for improvements along Ravalli Street, postponing the street improvements on Honey Lane and eliminating the purchase of a new dump truck, pick-up truck and snowplow. He said the improvements could wait and the vehicles were not absolutely necessary.

Mayor Steele disagreed, saying that the city needs to move forward with these projects.

Stranger said that Ravalli Street doesn’t meet the standards required for a collector road in the city and that improvements there were also critical to the city’s non-motorized transportation plan. He said the city was looking for grants to offset the costs for the project but engineering plans were needed just to apply for the grants.

Other cuts have been proposed

All these proposals and the city’s capital improvement plan will be up for discussion at the budget meeting planned for August 6.

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