Central Valley Fire

Central Valley Fire Department firefighter and EMT Jordan McGearty climbs down from a fire truck on March 10 in Belgrade.

Belgrade citizens have voted decisively to annex into the Central Valley Fire District, a move that City Manager Ted Barkley said will save taxpayers $50 million over the next 20 years.

According to final, unofficial results of the mail election, 97.4 percent of the 2,236 city residents who returned ballots favored the annexation. Only 57 voted against the proposal.

“This is an example of an informed electorate making a good decision,” Barkely said Tuesday evening, shortly after the votes were counted.

Describing himself as “ecstatic,” Central Valley Fire Chief Ron Lindroth said the city-fire district partnership, set to go into effect next year, represents a victory for all parties.

“With the partnership, we have a larger tax base to share the cost,” he said. “It clears the way for (the district) to provide better, more robust services.”

Kristi Gee, president of the Belgrade Chamber of Commerce, credited city officials with making sure the public understood what was at stake prior to the election. Had the measure been defeated, she said chamber officials feared the resulting increased taxes on Belgrade property owners would adversely affect local businesses.

“Ted (Barkley) and his staff and council members made sure citizens knew what they were getting into,” she said. “We’re very pleased it went this way.”

Barkley credited the city council and Mayor Russ Nelson for their roles in helping educate citizens about the proposal. Tuesday night, Nelson said he was very pleased with the outcome.

“This is by far the best decision,” he said. “We have good service now. Why change that?”

The election was the culmination of more than three years of effort by Barkley, other city officials and state legislators from Belgrade, Billings and Missoula to pave the way for an annexation. Since 1947, what is now called Central Valley Fire District has operated as a rural fire district, separate from the Belgrade Fire Department. Though technically separate, the two have operated under the same chiefs with the same firefighters, same equipment and out of the same stations.

Through an interlocal agreement, the city currently collects property taxes and passes them on to Central Valley for fire and ambulance services in the city. Belgrade does not have a voting representative on the Central Valley Board of Trustees, and residents cannot vote for the district’s trustees.

The arrangement could have 

continued in perpetuity were it not for an old Montana law requiring cities to form their own, independent fire departments once their populations reach 10,000. It is expected that Belgrade will surpass that number in the upcoming 2020 census. 

In Belgrade’s case, officials estimated that creating a new city fire department would cost taxpayers $3.3 million per year, as opposed to the $567,000 they currently pay to Central Valley for fire and ambulance services.

During the 2019 Legislative session, Belgrade officials threw support behind a successful bill sponsored by Rep. Bruce Grubbs, R-Belgrade, to change the law and thereby allow cities to annex into a fire district rather than establish their own.

Once the annexation goes into effect, city residents will notice little change. The amount of tax they currently pay to the city for emergency services won’t change, but they will be paid directly to Central Valley rather than be funneled through the city. 

Registered voters in the city also will become voting members of the fire district, and will be eligible to run for a seat on the Central Valley Board of Trustees if they so choose.

Lindroth said Central Valley’s new main station on the airport campus was built “with the full expectation that this eventually would occur.”

“We (the city and fire district) have been courting for 70 years,” he said of the longtime  partnership. “Now we’re finally married.”