Arizona Fire District Laid Off; Station Closed

WHITE MOUNTAIN LAKE, Ariz. -- The fire station in White Mountain Lake is closed and the entire staff of the fire district has been laid off indefinitely following an announcement that the district has a deficit of about $400,000.

At a meeting of the district's Governing Board last Tuesday night, Fire Chief Joe Blake told an awestruck audience that the district currently has a negative balance of nearly half a million dollars.

Aside from wanting to know where and how the negative balance came about, residents attending the meeting wanted to know who will provide basic emergency services to the community until the budget problems can be explained or solved.

The Independent received a phone call Wednesday morning from an anonymous source indicating that four staff members of the White Mountain Lake Fire District had volunteered their time for at least a few days.

But The Independent has since learned that state law forbids paid employees to volunteer their time; therefore, as of Wednesday afternoon, the fire station in White Mountain Lake is closed until the county can resolve the issue.

Show Low Fire Department Battalion Chief Randy Chevalier said that Arrowhead Health Services will continue providing emergency ambulance and medical care to the area and that Show Low Fire Department will respond to structure fires at least for the short term. But, he said, numerous meetings are in the plans to determine what can be done to provide the community with a permanent fire department.

He added that the Taylor Fire Department will also be called in to assist as much as possible with structure fires and any other emergency situations that require police response like traffic situations or vehicle extrications after an accident.

"We do have somewhat of an obligation to answer calls in that community, but we can't do it indefinitely," Chevalier said.

County officials confirmed Wednesday afternoon that four of the existing board members in the White Mountain Lake Fire District had resigned and that an emergency meeting was be held Thursday morning to appoint an interim administrator for the district.

"The problem is that there is no money available for the White Mountain Lake Fire District because they are currently about $400,00 in the hole, but the people in the district have already paid their taxes and deserve to have a reliable fire district to serve their needs. It's a real conundrum," the source said.

One of the problems with the budget is likely that the district went from an 11-person fire station to 30 in a little over a year, and according to the county source, that should never have happened.

Blake did not try to sidestep his responsibility in allowing the negative balance to happen.

"I messed up,"' Blake said.

He told the anxious audience that the money could be accounted for but that somehow he spent more than the district's budget allowed.

Navajo County Board of Supervisors Chairman J.R. DeSpain said that as early as June 2008 the district had already begun its spiral from a black ledger to red but staff did not correctly read the ledgers from the county treasurer. The ledgers indicated the district was overspending, but fire department and district staff remained unaware of the negative balance.

Arizona fire districts get their money from their respective county, which collects taxes from residents within the fire district. The county then budgets money to the various fire districts depending on the tax dollars available from the specific district.

Republish with permission of The Independent.