Fire chiefs in Boise, Meridian and Eagle continue partnership talks after bond's failure

sberg@idahostatesman.comNovember 22, 2013 

fire training, fire tower, boise fire

The Boise Fire Department’s training facility is so close to the Boise River, it limits the ability to practice drills using chemicals for fear that they would find their way to the water.

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

  • WHAT ABOUT THE TOWER ON THE RIVER?

    If Boise builds a new training facility, it might have suitors for the property on West Shoreline Drive, where its existing facility stands.

    The property’s most attractive feature is access to the Boise River and Greenbelt, which lie immediately to the south.

    One negative is just to the north: I-184 and the traffic noise it produces. The lack of visibility is another minus.

    Add all those factors together and you have property that’s a good location for an office building but not a retail store or restaurant, said a banker, a commercial real estate agent and a developer.

    “You don’t really have any daytime population around there to do a lunch,” said Jason White, a partner at White-Leasure Development. “You don’t have any hotels pushing dinners.”

    The view of the river is a big plus for office space, and immediate access to the Greenbelt would be a benefit to employees who walk or bike, said Guy Levingston, co-owner of Intermountain Commercial Real Estate.

    Northwest Bank President and CEO Rob Perez said an office building at the property might not be profitable enough for speculative development. A company that plans to build its own headquarters might be interested, he said.

Whenever the city of Boise builds a new fire training facility, it will cooperate with districts around the Treasure Valley, Fire Chief Dennis Doan said.

The advantages of partnering are too attractive to pass up, he said. Joining hands with other districts offers each a chance to save money while making its firefighters safer and better at their jobs.

The hard part is making a partnership work.

On Nov. 5, Boise voters struck down a bond measure that would have authorized $17 million in debt for construction of a training facility and upgrades to four fire stations. If the bond had passed, the city was prepared to build the $6.85 million facility near its sewage treatment plant in West Boise.

Now the city will try to find a new way to pay for the facility, which had broad support even among people who publicly opposed the bond. A future bond election is possible. So is a levy election.

The city also could forgo a new facility and instead put money into keeping Boise’s existing training tower on West Shoreline Drive functional. That wouldn’t address limitations at the tower, such as the inability to practice with chemicals or lack of space for setting up a wide range of training scenarios that officials say are crucial to improving real-life response.

It could, however, buy the city enough time to hammer out an agreement with other cities and districts.

Doan said he’ll write a report over the next six months analyzing possible solutions. It’s for his education in the National Fire Academy’s executive fire officer academy, but he wants to apply it to his job here in Boise.

A single facility with a central location for Valley districts is one possibility, Doan said. Having multiple smaller facilities that all agencies could use for specific types of training is another.

TWO METHODS

The most obvious place to start the process is to involve all of the interested fire agencies. That means getting Boise, Meridian, Eagle and perhaps other fire districts to agree on size, cost, location and amenities, as well as how much each entity pays.

That approach has drawbacks, Doan said.

“It’s hard to ask another city to pitch in on a concept,” Doan said. “It’s hard to come with a, ‘Yeah, I can get $1 million for you,’ until there’s a plan laid out.”

Then there’s the “Field of Dreams” method: If you build it, they will come. In this process, Boise or another city would build a new training facility and ask the other districts and cities to help pay for it, or charge them rent.

Eagle Fire Chief Mike Winkle likes the first way better, because a facility built without everyone’s input might not reflect each partner’s needs. Eagle, for example, has different types of buildings than Boise, so firefighters train for different scenarios.

“If we put the effort in, we’ll identify those problems and then we’ll have better solutions,” he said. “There’s a whole lot more buy-in if we partner on the front end versus getting told what we can access.”

DEAL OF A GENERATION

Agreements between governments are always complicated. Take the joint powers agreement that emergency services agencies around Ada County signed in July. On its surface, the deal seems to be a no-brainer: It basically turns the whole county into one response district where the nearest available and capable units respond to emergencies. Sometimes, that means a medical unit from one city will take a call that originates in a neighboring city.

As Boise Mayor Dave Bieter said, the joint powers agreement is a rare government opportunity to “make things better, make things faster, make things cheaper.”

But it took decades of negotiating over responsibilities, liability and other details to get the contract signed.

Some might look at the time it took to finalize that deal and conclude that chances for an agreement on a joint fire training facility are slim. Boise City Council President Maryanne Jordan sees it differently. To Jordan, the fact that the joint powers deal got done is proof these kinds of agreements are possible.

“Of course it was hard. But something like that should be hard,” she said. “It should be thoughtful, and it should be careful, and it should be difficult, and then you should get to a product in the end that’s a correct response and defensible, and that’s where I think we landed.”

Winkle took it a step further. As hard as the joint powers agreement was, he said, it should serve as “a springboard” that makes it easier to form future partnerships between Ada County’s cities that save money and improve emergency services.

“We’ve been able as fire chiefs to set aside pride and ego and put those that pay us to be here as the priority, and that’s where I’m most encouraged,” Winkle said. “In the end run, we’ll come up with a solution that may not look the same but will be just as beneficial, if not more, working together.”

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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