Bloomfield votes 3-1 to contract with San Juan County Fire Department
The Bloomfield Fire Department on Friday goes through its morning routines, which include equipment maintenance and testing and a building inspection at a local school.
AZTEC — Mayor Cynthia Atencio said the decision to contract with the San Juan County Fire Department was “heartbreaking” but had to be done because Bloomfield does not have the money to provide the fire suppression and emergency medical services the community needs.
The Bloomfield City Council voted 3-1 in favor of contracting with San Juan County Fire Department.
The vote comes after two years of discussion. Councilor Sue Finch cast the sole dissenting vote.
The contract will save the city more than $100,000 a year.
While the city discussed contracting with the county for two years, the lack of funding for the fire department has been a concern for even longer.
In 2014, the city received a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant that allowed it to hire more firefighters. This improved the response time.
But the grant expired in 2016 and then Fire Chief George Duncan came to the City Council with a request for an increase in gross receipts tax. The funding from that increase was originally billed as a way to hire more firefighters. The city placed it to a vote and the Bloomfield residents supported the tax increase.
The funding from that increased tax did not provide the fire department with the money to keep the firefighters on staff who had been paid through the grant funding. Instead, the city needed to use that revenue to balance its budget during an economic downturn.
Duncan's successor, John Mohler, proposed contracting with the county in 2018. Mohler also began working as the county deputy chief at the same time while volunteering his time as the Bloomfield fire chief, a step that saved the city more than $100,000. He has since been promoted to San Juan County Fire Chief.
Duncan, who is now the Bloomfield city manager, presented a proposal to the City Council that would have increased the number of paid firefighters while keeping the fire department under city management. His plan would have had a crew of three people on every shift — a captain, an engineer firefighter and a volunteer. It also called for promoting interim chief Angel Norton to fire chief.
"My plan provides a template to be expanded on," Duncan said.
He said having three people on a shift is not ideal. A five-person crew is needed to be 100% efficient. But he pointed out that the county's plan would also have a crew smaller than five people.
Finch supported Duncan's plan and opposed the 15-year length of the contract, which she said was too long.
The city had wanted to have a public meeting to discuss merging fire departments, but the public health orders currently in effect ban large gatherings. Atencio said it could be more than a year before the large public gatherings will be permitted and it is not fair to the Bloomfield firefighters to make them wait that long for a decision.
The contract now goes to the San Juan County Commission for approval. If approved by the county, it will be in effect for 15 years and will be reviewed and possibly amended every two years. The city and the county can choose to leave the agreement prior to 15 years.
The contract with the county will save the city money and can provide additional service, including mechanics to work on the firetrucks.
Bloomfield has two mechanics who service all the vehicles in the city, including police cars and fire trucks. These mechanics are not certified emergency vehicle mechanics. Contracting with the county means the county's mechanics, including a team of five certified emergency vehicle mechanics, will maintain the fire department vehicles.
The contract with the county also means access to grant writers. Last year, San Juan County grant writers successfully applied for a grant that allowed the San Juan County Fire Department to replace air tanks. Bloomfield also needed to replace those tanks, which Councilor Ken Hare said cost the city $220,000.
San Juan County also has various division chiefs that bring a wealth of knowledge to the department, Hare said.
Atencio, who only votes if there is a tie, said she would have voted in favor of contracting with the county if it had been a tie.
She explained that the city is on a tight budget.
City Councilor George Walter said the decision to contract with the San Juan County Fire Department will not be the last controversial decision the city has to make due to the tight budget.
"We're going to have many, many difficult decisions," he said.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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