Policy Talk

Belgrade City Manager Ted Barkley, right, makes a point while Central Valley Fire District Chief Ron Lindroth looks on.

Editor’s note: The following was a packet item for the Nov. 18 Belgrade City Council meeting. The piece explains the history and current affairs between the City of Belgrade and Central Valley Fire District. I opted to print it in its entirity. It’s important. Please read it.

For many years, the concept of annexing the City of Belgrade into the Central Valley Fire District has been discussed and modelled. The primary obstacle had been a legal one.  State statute (Montana Code Annotated) had prohibited cities such as Belgrade from annexing into fire districts until this year. During the 2019 legislative session, Senate Bill 20 was adopted, which modified the statutory environment to allow cities of the second class to be annexed into a fire district. This creates an option for the City and the District to pool resources and create an efficient single entity to provide fire and emergency medical services.

Belgrade Volunteer Fire Department has been in operation since 1906. For many years, it served both Belgrade and the surrounding area, operating from a small City tax base. In the 1940s, the Montana State Legislature authorized the creation of rural fire districts, and Belgrade Rural Fire District (now Central Valley Fire District) was formed in 1947. The two departments have operated as a single organization, but with separate governance ever since.

Today, as has been historically the case, both departments have the same chief, the same firefighters, the same equipment and the same stations. For efficient and seamless services throughout the Belgrade community, this arrangement has worked out very well.

The combined departments operate under an interlocal agreement, which is attached to this draft plan. Under the agreement, the City pays the District a number of mills calculated to match the mill levy that is collected by the District from the owners of real property. This is designed to make the cost of services equitable; whether the property and people receiving service are in the District or in the City of Belgrade.

While the current arrangement has worked relatively well, it has some limitations. First, while City and District residents receive the same services, City residents do not have representation on the CVFD board. There is a City representative that attends board meetings but has no vote. Annexing into the District would give residents of the City the standing of also being residents of the District, giving them the right to vote in District elections and to serve on the District board. This is important because under the current arrangement, City taxpayers have little influence regarding taxes levied for fire and EMS services. As members of the District, Belgrade citizens would be fully enfranchised in this process.

Second, any major initiatives, investments, or projects require the concurrence of two governmental entities rather than one. The governance processes are then doubled in regard to funding and policy decisions.

Third, the option for the City to annex into the District has a time limitation. When Belgrade becomes a city of the first class (defined in Montana statute as having a population of 10,000 or greater) it is required to provide an independent, full time, paid professional fire department, unless it has previously annexed into a fire district. It is expected that the City of Belgrade will become a city of the first class as a result of the 2020 census.

Because the option of continuing the current arrangement of shared services is legally foreclosed by statute upon becoming a city of the first class, the City of Belgrade has two choices:

Option 1: The City could fund its own full time paid professional fire department. The assumption is that Belgrade would fund one full time engine company 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The calculated costs (using 2018 data) for this option is about $3,300,000 per year. This does not include all startup costs. These costs were derived and validated through studies performed by Emergency Services Consulting International, updated September 6, 2018, or about 280 mills in property tax assessments. Doing so would replicate or duplicate services already provided by CVFD. The cost for a homeowner with a property tax value of $200,000 would be about $ 756 per year, or about $63 per month. 

Option 2: The City could annex into Central Valley Fire District. Using 2018 numbers from the same study, annual costs for taxpayers will be about $567,000, plus legacy costs associated with funding the City Fireman’s Pension and Relief Fund, a total of about 61 mills. The cost for a homeowner with a property tax value $200,000 would be about $165 per year, or about$13.75 per month. This is very close to what taxpayers now pay. 

Annexation of the City of Belgrade into the District is proposed.                                                                                                                            

Elements of the Plan

A resolution of interest and intent has been passed by both governing bodies.

1. Subject to voter approval, the date of annexation is set for July 1st, 2020. The date proposed for election is March 3rd, 2020, subject to the approval of the Belgrade City Council, the CVFD Board of Trustees, and the Gallatin County Elections Office.

2. Residents of the City of Belgrade will become residents of the District as of the annexation date, including the right to vote in District elections and serve on the Board of Trustees, if elected.

3. During the transition year, FY 2020/2021, the City will assess taxes on real property in the City of Belgrade and forward the proceeds to the District. Thereafter, the owners of real property will be assessed by the District at the same mill rate as all other members of the District.

4. All firefighting apparatus and equipment currently owned by the City and in use by the District will be transferred to the District.

5. The employment status and compensation of employees and volunteers of the District will not be impacted by the annexation.

6. The City will retain and administer the existing Firemen’s Pension and Relief Fund.

7. The Belgrade Volunteer Fire Department will cease to exist.

8. A map of the district after the proposed annexation is attached.

The real property owned jointly by the City of Belgrade and CVFD has already been divided by actions of the City Council, and the CVFD Board of Trustees.