Fire marshal tells RC to start service

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The residents of Rio Communities were delivered some good news and some bad news Tuesday night regarding fire service in the newly incorporated city.

New Mexico Fire Marshal John Standefer said he would stand behind the city if they decided to start their own fire department, but it would take one year of probationary status before the department could qualify to receive state fire funds.

Standefer said a municipality's ability to provide services, such as fire protection, to a community is important, but it's not required.

"There's no law in New Mexico that says a municipality has to have a fire department," Standefer said during the city council meeting Tuesday. "No one in municipal government doesn't realize the importance of the service. A good, sound fire department is important, not only for safety, but it will affect people's pocketbooks."

Valencia County owns the Rio Grande Estate Fire Department in Rio Communities, but isn't legally obligated to provide services beyond its political boundaries.

Standefer said he doesn't know what the county intends to do regarding the department or its intention to provide fire and rescue services to Rio Communities.

"We've asked the question, but all I've received is a letter from the fire chief, but nothing official from the county," the fire marshal said. "I was hoping a representative from the county was going to be here, but they're not."

Standefer said he would be contacting county officials in the next couple of days to ask them what their intentions are for the department.

The state fire marshal said he wasn't comfortable releasing the details of a letter he received from Valencia County Fire Chief Steven Gonzales, but Rio Grande Estates Fire Chief Ed Butler said he has spoken with Gonzales and said it was his understanding that Rio Communities is "getting nothing."

"They're looking at you as a cash cow," Butler said. "I understand we are going to charge you per call. We received 1,200 calls last year and, for $75 per call, you figure it out.

"You all need to decide," the chief said. "My members are pretty fed up with the county. I can't promise you how many people will stick around."

In a telephone interview Wednesday morning, Gonzales said Butler's claim that the county was going to charge Rio Communities per call is incorrect.

"We will continue to provide the same service as in the past," Gonzales said. "There has been an unofficial meeting with county manager, the mayor and myself, and we talked about Valencia County offering free service to the Rio Communities area for the next six months. We were told that, at that point, Rio Communities should have their feet on the ground to do whatever they're going to do."

Gonzales said there's been no official communication between the county and Rio Communities to request fire service from the county, and the county has made no official offers to the city.

"As far as the fire department, there has been no official decisions on its future," he said. "There's no documentation, no JPAs, no anything."

Standefer told the council there are several options the city has regarding fire service in Rio Communities. He said the county is legally bound to inform the state fire marshal's office its intentions for the fire department, whether it's going to include the city in the department's jurisdiction or not.

He said the county could transfer the entire department, including its equipment and property, to the city of Rio Communities. Or, he said, the city can create its own fire district .

He did say if the county doesn't include the city in its fire district, the area's ISO rating will likely decrease. According to Standefer, the Insurance Service Office rates fire departments on its ability to fight structure fires, and in turn, sells that information to insurance companies. The rating an area receives affects insurance premiums.

Currently, the Rio Grande Estates Fire Department has a 5 rating, which Standefer says is "excellent" for a rural department.

"We also fund those fire departments based on those ratings," the fire marshal said. "We also help prepare departments for the ratings."

He said if the city and county agree to transfer the fire department's assets to Rio Communities, there might be a compromise that the city would also incorporate services to the areas outside the city limits currently within the fire district.

"If the county comes to you with the worse-case scenario, I'm sorry, but I don't have the answers," the fire marshal said. "We will try and help you locate equipment, work with you to recognize proper housing. We will do the best we can to help you with the probationary problems."

Standefer advised city officials to begin the process of acquiring equipment, housing, establishing a membership roll and locating funding.

He also said the county can continue to provide services while the city builds a department.

"It's unorthodox, but we can do it," he said. "We have run similar scenarios through legal, and their response says that you can create a department while the county continues to provide services. I would hope that happens."


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.