Should Thompson-Nicola Regional District operate Little Fort Volunteer Fire Department? The question is going to the community to decide.
During a public meeting held Monday evening, April 23, in Little Fort Hall, property owners voted 50 to two in favour of having the TNRD conduct a petition assent process to determine if there should be a fire protection service administered by the regional district.
“Running a fire department in B.C. is no longer a simple, neighbour-helping-neighbour situation,” Libby Toman, the fire department’s secretary and a member of its board of directors, told the meeting.
New provincial standards mean that firefighters must have hundreds of hours of experience just to get basic certification, she said.
Worksafe BC and other agencies are imposing stricter rules and regulations.
Perhaps most importantly, there is a huge liability exposure for everyone involved, including firefighters and fire department directors.
Toman said that it the proposal to have the TNRD take over operation did not pass, she did not see the fire department continuing on for very much longer.
Last summer’s wildfire situation showed the value of having fire departments in small communities, said Ron Storie, the TNRD’s director of community services. Little Fort’s department in particular showed its worth.
“It could have been a lot worse, so kudos to you,” Storie said.
There have been three deaths of volunteer firefighters in B.C. since Clearwater’s Chad Schapansky was killed in a fire in 2004, he said.
In 2016 the regional district became aware that fire departments run by societies, of which there are six in the TNRD (including Little Fort), do not have the legal authority to go onto private property to fight fires.
The TNRD had a fire services review done in 2017. One of its major recommendations was that the regional district stop collecting taxes for the fire departments run by societies because of concerns about training standards and liability.
Earlier this year the TNRD board of directors voted to do just that – stop funding the society fire departments by the end of 2022.
If the change to having the regional district take over operation of the Little Fort Fire Department is approved, the proposed service area would be the same as it is now with the addition of 17 properties located along Highway 5 between Little Fort and Blackpool.
Those properties do not have fire protection at present.
The eventual goal would be to amalgamate the Little Fort and Blackpool fire departments into one, which should result in cost savings.
The budget for LFVD is presently about $30,000 per year, said Doug Rae, the TNRD director of finance.
In order to meet the new standards, that would need to increase to $150,000 per year.
That estimate is based on fire departments the TNRD already operates in Blackpool, Vavenby and Pritchard, he said.
Little Fort is fortunate in that the majority of the taxes (58 per cent) are paid by utilities, such as railroad, pipeline, telecommunications, etc.
To collect $150,000, the residential tax rate would be $1.68 per $1,000 assessment. With the average assessment within the service area being $179,000, the average residential tax would be $300.
Because property owners already pay an average of $62 for fire protection, the tax increase for the improved service would be an average of $238 per household (except for those properties along Highway 5 that are presently outside the fire protection area).
The fire department had asked that the decision be made by a petition rather than a referendum, said Carolyn Black, TNRD director of legislative services.
If the choice had been a referendum, there would have been a voting day and people would have come in and cast ballots, as in an election.
With the petition process, 50 per cent of the property owners representing 50 per cent of the assessed value must sign and send in a form that indicates they approve of the change.
There are 192 properties in the service area, which means there must be 96 forms turned in.
The total assessment for the Little Fort area is $49 million, which means the signed forms turned in must represent at least $24.5 million in assessed value.
Following the successful 50 to two straw poll at the end of the meeting, the matter will be taken to the TNRD board to authorize the petition process.
A more detailed information will be held on May 15 and petition forms will be handed out. Those unable to attend the meeting will have the forms mailed to them.
July 6 will be the deadline for the TNRD to receive the petition forms.
If the service is approved, the service will begin Jan. 1, 2019, which will be the first year of taxation.