BOZEMAN, Mont. - Lawmakers in Helena are considering a bill aimed at cutting taxpayer spending on fire departments. It's called House Joint Resolution 25. The resolution would create a study to see how laws governing fire departments can be changed.
Right now state law requires any city with a population over 10,000 to operate its own fire department. Cities with a smaller population can contract for fire protection services.
Central Valley Fire District's chief, Ron Lindroth, says the ultimate goal is to save money for communities in high growth areas. It focused on places like Belgrade, where the population is expected to reach 10,000 in just three years. With that comes the prospect of funding their own fire department. Belgrade currently has a contract with Central Valley for fire protection services.
Standalone fire departments are expensive and, according to Lindroth, they aren't always necessary.
"That, in effect, would require us to separate a system that is currently working very well for the community," said Lindroth.
Belgrade is currently home to about 8,500 people. Census data shows that number could rise to 10,000 by 2020, and 10,000 is the tipping point.
"The city would have to come up with a standalone fire department, duplicate services at an increased, triple cost to the citizens in taxes," said Lindroth.
That's where House Joint Resolution 25 comes in. If approved it would launch a study on that 10,000-resident threshold. It would also look at how volunteer districts versus standalone fire departments affect a taxpayer's wallet.
Lindroth said, "What we're trying to do is look at this bill before it becomes a crisis for citizens and get it resolved."
Although Central Valley would lose revenue Lindroth says it's residents who end up paying the cost. According to the bill it costs Belgrade $600,000 year to contract with the Central Valley Fire District. To create their own fire department it could cost Belgrade more than $1.6 million a year.
Resident Jon Patterson says even with growth in the area he doesn't think it's time to separate from Central Valley.
"I think if we start having issues where they can't keep up, then Belgrade could look for their own department, but for now I think we're fine," said Patterson.
Lindroth agrees, but he'll have to hope lawmakers in Helena side with him too.
If the resolution passes the study would be available to the next legislature in 2019.