Navajo Nation to take over fire stations

Transition expected to take approximately six months

Dan Schwartz

AZTEC — Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye told San Juan County commissioners in a meeting Wednesday that the tribe will take over three county-run fire stations on the reservation.

He said the tribe added about $810,000 to its budget to do so.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye addresses members of the San Juan County Commission Tuesday during a meeting in Aztec.

“We increased it significantly so that we could assume control of the fire stations,” he said.

The tribe plans to operate the fire stations by next year, according to a letter the tribe sent to the county.

The county has run the fire stations in Shiprock, Newcomb and Ojo Amarillo since the 1990s, but without additional funding, it can’t afford to do that anymore. Since 2009, the county has cut more than $50 million from its annual budget even as calls for service from the three stations rose.

County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter listed a series of options for operating the fire stations in a December 2014 letter to the Navajo Nation. If the county didn’t give the stations and some of their equipment to the tribe, the county could close them. The county could continue to run them if the tribe paid it about $810,000 annually to cover operations, equipment and staffing costs.

Some county officials have said they worry the tribe won’t provide the same level of service as the county has while running the three fire stations. Commissioner Wallace Charley, who represents many reservation residents, is one of them.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye describes how the tribe will take over three fire stations during a San Juan County Commission meeting in Aztec earlier this month.

“There are people that are against what we’re talking about,” he said.

He asked the Navajo officials who attended the meeting to assure residents that the Navajo Nation will take care of them.

After he addressed the commission, Begaye said in an interview that people raise that same question whenever the tribe takes over a program, “and we just continuously prove ourselves.”

The tribe, he said, will run the fire stations well.

In the meeting, Commissioner Jack Fortner asked about the cost of the infrastructure and equipment that the county is transferring to the tribe. Fire Chief Craig Daugherty said the assets cost about $2.8 million, and that total doesn’t include items such as radios, chainsaws or breathing equipment.

In response to a question from Commissioner Scott Eckstein, Daugherty said transferring the fire stations to the tribe could take about six months.

San Juan County Commissioners Keith Johns, center, and Scott  Eckstein listen as Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, left, speaks Tuesday during a San Juan County Commission meeting in Aztec.

Carpenter said the county will work with the tribe to make sure there is no gap in service during the transition.

“The No. 1 goal is we want to make sure we take care of our citizens,” he said.

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606.