County approves Navajo fire stations agreement

Brett Berntsen
Firefighters Leigh Ann Nez, left, and Derrick Woody collect their gear Oct. 22 as they prepare to respond to an emergency at San Juan County District 12 Fire Station in Shiprock.

AZTEC – San Juan County and the Navajo Nation formalized an agreement Tuesday under which the tribe will pay the county to continue operating the Shiprock, Ojo Amarillo and Newcomb fire stations through September.

The tribe was scheduled to take over the stations April 1, but hadn't hired enough firefighters. The agreement states the county will receive $67,500 per month to continue manning the stations, and the deal can be renewed for an additional three months if the tribe still can’t assume operations in September.

Arbin Mitchell, chief of staff of the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President, cited policy problems hindering the recruitment of qualified employees.

“Under Navajo law, certain experience isn’t recognized,” he said.

Commissioner Wallace Charley noted that applicants would need to have a college degree and be required to work below their pay grade.

According to the Navajo Nation Department of Personnel Management website, salaries for the positions start at $26,270.

“What kind of college graduate is going to come back to the reservation and work for that?" Charley said.

In 2014, San Juan County asked the tribe for assistance operating the stations due to budget constraints. County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said the tribe was originally given an option to enter into a partnership with the county, but instead decided to assume full responsibility.

Members of the public on Tuesday voiced concerns about whether tribal officials understand the enormity of the undertaking, especially considering the importance of some of the stations.

The Shiprock Fire Department received more than 1,500 calls in 2014, making it the second busiest in the county that year, according to the department’s website. Additionally, the Ojo Amarillo station borders Navajo Agricultural Products Industry headquarters, one of the largest tracts of farmland in the country.

“I would hate to see something horrible happen,” GloJean Todacheene of Shiprock said. “I always appreciated the county for being there.”

Mitchell said he’s confident that the Navajo Nation has the capacity to take over the stations because it already operates a number of departments in Arizona. He added, however, that the tribe should look into making salaries competitive with departments outside the reservation.

The agreement allows the tribe to take incremental steps during its hiring process. If the tribe can take control of one or more stations, the payments to the county would be reduced.

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