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Rural Whitefish fire area seeks fee increase

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | July 10, 2024 12:00 AM

The rural Whitefish fire area is seeking to increase its service fees to better keep up with increasing costs.  

The Whitefish Fire Service Area is requesting to increase its flat fee by 25% for properties in its 87-square-mile protection area. If approved by Flathead County commissioners, it would increase the fee paid by residential property owners by $36 from $144 per year to $180 per year.  

Commissioners will hold a public hearing on amending the fire service fee at 9:15 a.m. on July 11. Commissioners meet beginning at 8:45 a.m. at the Historic Courthouse, 800 S. Main St. in Kalispell.   

The area, which is one of the few fire protection entities in the state that uses a flat rate fee for funding rather than collecting based on property tax value, hasn’t seen a fee increase since 2015.  

D.C. Haas, executive director for the rural fire area, said the driver behind the fee increase is to keep up with operational costs and plan for a new contract with the city of Whitefish Fire Department, which provides fire service for the rural area.   

“We have not kept up with inflation on our fees,” Haas said. “We need the rate increase to keep up with our fire service area expenditures.”  

The rural area is set to pay Whitefish Fire $367,557 in 2026 and its bill would increase to $544,074 in 2036. It has also agreed to provide a fire engine to the city at an estimated cost of $700,000.  

Under its current funding structure, the rural fire area this year collects about $450,000. Under its requested fee increase it would collect $563,000. 

Commissioners on June 27 voted 2-1 on a resolution of intent to increase the fee, thus triggering a public hearing and final vote on the increase.  

Commissioner Pam Holmquist voted against the resolution noting that she could not support a fee increase that would not result in an increase in service. 

“There’s no requirement to go to citizens for a vote,” she said, of approving a fee increase. “This is just something that we approve as commissioners.” 

Haas told commissioners that an increase in fees now would assist the district with future plans that could allow it to increase fire service levels.  

Rural fire officials have indicated that they will likely return next year to ask for another 25% fee increase.  

The fire area includes 2,900 residential and multi-family units. It includes 64 businesses.  

Condominiums and multi-family unit rates are the same as single family homes. 

Rates for rural businesses termed as low risk such as restaurants, hotels and motels would see fees increase from $320 to $400, while high risk businesses would see fees go from $900 to $1,125 per year.  

In February, the rural fire area mailed out information letters to property owners. It says it received 56 comments back with 72% approving of the rate increase while 10% did not want an increase.  

Deputy Editor Heidi Desch may be reached at 758-4421 or hdesch@dailyinterlake.com.