Firefighters spoke about staffing conditions they faced

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BLOOMFIELD — Bloomfield's City Council delayed action on the future of the city's Fire Department, but for 90 minutes people weighed in on the possible benefits and perils of contracting with the county fire department versus staying independent.

Bloomfield Mayor Pro Tem Ken Hare on July 8 announced the council would not take any action on the issue as Mayor Cynthia Atencio was not present due to a family emergency and Councilor Matt Pennington did not attend the meeting.

Current firefighters are seeking additional support through an arrangement with the county, but some residents and former firefighters worry about losing control of the department.

Public comments on the city's fire department were made for nearly 90 minutes of the two-hour meeting.

Many citizens gave their views, as did former volunteer firefighters and current members of the fire department — including its office manager, volunteer and paid firefighters and Bloomfield Fire Chief John Mohler.

Volunteer chief already works for county

Mohler has been deputy fire chief for the San Juan County Fire Department since August 2018. He has been Bloomfield's volunteer fire chief since taking the county job.

In the past, he has encouraged discussions to occur between San Juan County and the City of Bloomfield to find a way for the county to possibly operate the fire department.

During public comment, Mohler told the council the Fire Department has been asking since January for Bloomfield to just come to the table and look at what a possible contract with the county might look like.

"We've been begging for help for years. We've always been constrained by what's available in the budget," Mohler said. "This is a way to get the budget to work and get us some more help."

Multiple residents voiced opposition to the county possibly taking over or operating the  department. Some believed the county would take ownership of assets Bloomfield taxpayers paid for.

Others believed that the fire department would merge with the San Juan County Fire Department, and feared the department would lose its independence.

During Mohler's public comments, he said the fire department would not lose its identity and that the same women and men would be manning the trucks. He said the department was pursuing this route to keep the community safe.  

Multiple firefighters shared stories of fellow firefighters working sick because there were not enough people to respond to a call. They also shared how it has become more difficult for volunteers to contribute as they had in the past.

One firefighter described how he and a fellow firefighter were the only two able to respond to a fire in May 2018 as they spent 20 minutes by themselves trying to protect two residences until a county fire crew arrived on scene.

Former Councilor Elwin Roark spoke in favor of pursuing a contract with the county, stating he did not see economic conditions improving with the decline of oil and gas in the region.

City Manager and former Bloomfield Fire Chief George Duncan spoke against county involvement. Duncan acknowledged how residents would be frustrated after a 1/4 of 1 percent gross receipt tax increase approved by voters didn't go to pay for firefighters like it was proposed.

He added although it would cost more, the city should staff the department as it was "jewel" important to the community.

Duncan also stated if they let go of the department, the city might not see it again.

Joshua Kellogg covers breaking news for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or via email at jkellogg@daily-times.com.

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