ST. GEORGE — Following a yearlong process that began with the revocation of the Rockville-Springdale Fire Protection District’s ability to control its budget, the Washington County Commission passed a resolution Tuesday beginning the process of merging it with the Hurricane Valley Fire District.
Just over a year ago, the Rockville-Springdale Fire District board proposed a $1.3 million budget for 2018 that came with a substantial hike to the portion of property tax allotted to the fire district – as well as an increase in associated fees – thereby increasing the overall property tax.
The proposed increase amounted to a 261.5 percent jump in property taxes and a 74 percent jump in associated fees.
“I couldn’t vote for doubling taxes on those residents,” Commissioner Dean Cox said Tuesday following the vote to merge the fire districts.
Part of the reasoning for the proposed increase was to better compensate and retain the district’s firefighters and EMTs.
The fire district’s employees in 2017 received a raise to $13 an hour due to losing personnel to better paying agencies. The 2018 budget would have raised the pay to $16 an hour.
When the fire district originally formed in 1983, it was a volunteer agency that wasn’t regulated as much as it is now, Cox said.
Today’s rules regarding safety and training have made volunteering less viable, making it necessary to hire firefighters and EMTs and provide competitive pay to keep them, he said.
The budget came before the County Commission in December 2017 and ultimately led to the commissioner’s revoking the district’s budgetary authority. Soon after, the commission passed a smaller budget for $940,000.
The fire district has been primarily supported by 800 residents and business owners between Rockville and Springdale and has maintained a roster of 26 employees.
In addition to dealing with potential emergencies within Rockville and Springdale, the district has also had to shoulder the burden of dealing with the millions of visitors to Zion National Park, Cox said.
There were 300 ambulance trips out of the fire district last year and the majority of those trips didn’t involve the residents, he said.
“It’s not the locals riding in the ambulance,” Cox said. “Primarily, it’s the tourists.”
Believing the area’s tourists should help pay for emergency services in the area, Cox said the commission has spoken to state legislators about applying transient room and restaurant taxes toward this end.
“I think it is ludicrous to have a small district that is not economically viable keep up with that,” Cox said.
Following the passage of the smaller 2018 budget, Cox and the County Commission began looking at less expensive alternatives to cover the emergency service needs of Rockville and Springdale. One of the first considerations was contracting the services of the Hurricane Valley Fire District.
“They could support a contract with Hurricane Valley on their current revenue base,” Cox said.
The County Commission approved a contract with the Hurricane Valley Fire District to provide coverage to the Rockville-Springdale area following a March 2018 meeting. The contract remains in effect until the end of 2019.
Advantages the Hurricane Valley Fire District bring with it include a larger tax base that draws from nearly 40,000 residents, higher paid employees and more adequate resources, Cox said.
Hurricane Valley encompasses Hurricane, Leeds, LaVerkin, Virgin, Kolob and Toquerville, and will add Rockville and Springdale as the merger moves forward.
Cox said he also had concerns with how the fire district had staffed its fire station.
The Rockville-Springdale Fire District kept four employees – two firefighters and two EMTs – on standby within the district for emergencies.
“Firefighters need to be in the fire station, not just within the district,” Cox said.
This could result in longer response times where time matters most, he said. Under Hurricane Valley, two firefighters with EMT training are kept at the station for the duration of their standby shift.
Having two, rather than four personnel on hand also helps reduce the fire district’s operating cost.
The intent to merge the fire district was taken to area residents during a public hearing in Springdale last November. When the idea was initially mentioned in December 2017, members of the fire district’s board were not happy with the prospect.
Luci Francis, chairwoman of the Rockville-Springdale Fire Protection District board at the time, declined to comment on the future of the fire district, yet said she “hopes the current and excellent service” that residents enjoy will continue uninterrupted.
“I think they’ve done the very best they could under very difficult circumstances,” Cox said of the fire district’s board. “It’s painful and hard for some people because they have vested ownership. I get that. I just don’t see a path forward except a merger.”
A letter protesting the merger listing 61 names was sent to the County Commission, but did not reach a threshold necessary to impact the pending merger.
The Rockville-Springdale Fire District will be absorbed into the Hurricane Valley Fire District over the coming year.
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