Chief suggests city contract with county for services

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FARMINGTON — A lack of firefighters has led the city of Bloomfield to consider contracting with San Juan County for fire-suppression services.

No decision has been made regarding the contract, according to City Manager George Duncan. He said the city is waiting on information from the county before it can make a decision.

A memo Bloomfield fire Chief John Mohler sent to then-City Manager Eric Strahl in March stated that the fire department had reached a tipping point and may not be able to respond to emergency medical calls unless more firefighters are hired.

The memo started with “I need to inform you, it appears as though we have hit a tipping point, whereas we may no longer be able to provide all the emergency services needed by the community.”

On Tuesday, Mohler said the issues identified in the memo led to him suggesting contracting with the county.

The March memo states a lack of full-time firefighters is making it hard for the Bloomfield Fire Department to meet the demands of the community.

Mohler offered three options in the March memo. All three options included hiring an assistant chief.

Mohler said the best option would be to fill the position and hire three firefighters, although he also said the city could choose to hire a daytime firefighter instead of three firefighters. A daytime firefighter would work a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift weekdays, allowing the department to spread out when the other paid firefighters are working so that one paid firefighter was always on duty. Hiring three firefighters would allow the city to have more firefighters working the various shifts.

The three options would cost the city between $85,000 and $310,000, according to the estimates Mohler provided Strahl in the March memo.

The city of Bloomfield has been strapped for cash in the recent years. A downturn in the oil and gas industry led the city to lay off six full-time and two part-time employees in 2016 and cut wages. While Bloomfield's gross receipts tax revenues are coming in at more than what the city has seen in previous years, Bloomfield is still operating on a tight budget. It has not met its state-required cash reserves obligation in several years.

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In the memo, Mohler wrote that if additional staff members are not hired, the fire department would have to cut services. He provided two options for cutting services — stopping response to emergency medical calls or returning the paid positions to a Monday through Friday work schedule and having volunteers cover nights and weekends.

In 2013, the fire department operated with volunteer staffing during the nights and weekends. During 2013, there were 1,380 calls for service. Of these 1,380 calls, 100 went unanswered because no volunteers were available. Mohler stated in the memo that the number of calls the department receives has increased since 2013. In 2017, the fire department responded to more than 1,800 calls.

San Juan County Fire Chief Craig Daugherty said combining the two fire departments would be an easy transition.

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“We already do so much together,” Daugherty said.

He said the county and Bloomfield fire departments frequently provide aid to each other.

“I really see it as a win-win for citizens on both side of the fence,” he said.

The idea of having the county provide Bloomfield with fire-suppression services comes only years after city residents voted 317-249 to raise the gross receipts tax rates. The increased rate was first brought up as a way to fund full-time firefighter positions. The funding for those positions had been covered by a federal grant that expired in 2016.

Many signs posted around the city encouraged residents to vote in favor of the tax increase to support the fire department.

But the proposal did not specify that the increased revenue would be devoted to the fire department. Instead, the tax revenue went into the city's general fund. At the time the increase was passed, the city was working to cut $1.3 million from its budget.

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When the grant money ran out, the fire department had to cut its staff to three full-time firefighters.

In addition to losing personnel when the grant that funded full-time firefighter positions expired in 2016, the city of Bloomfield lost a firefighter position when the city annexed about 5,000 acres in 2014. Prior to the annexation, the gas plants located in the annexed land paid for a firefighter position. After the annexation, that funding went away.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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