Blanding Council hears public input on restrictions for city employees who volunteer as firefighters

By David Boyle
News Director
At their latest meeting, members of the Blanding City Council heard public input on a policy restricting city employees from serving on the volunteer fire department, approved a proposal for a new general plan, and approved their meeting schedule for 2023.
At their December 13 meeting, members of the Blanding City Council heard comments from seven Blanding residents regarding a city policy that would restrict city employees from working as volunteers on the city fire department.
While the city has historically classified volunteer firefighters as independent contractors receiving 1099 forms, the city is planning to reclassify them as employees with W-2 forms.
The change is due to some concerns about a potential violation of IRS code and Federal Fair Labor and Standards Act.
Paying overtime to city workers at a higher rate than other fire volunteers, or using compensation time to make up for extra hours are a concern for the city.
The new policy will impact Blanding Assistant Fire Chief Chas Jacobsen, who also works as the Natural Gas Superintendent for the city.
Speaking at the meeting, Blanding fire volunteer Corey Workman pleaded with the council to allow Jacobsen to remain on the fire department. Workman said after spending nearly 29 years on the department, he knows what it takes to do the job.
Workman said with just six department members with state certification fire one and fire two, losing even one member could stretch the department even thinner.
“(Jacobsen) knows firefighting. The city is a safer place with him being on the department. There’s got to be a way around this. You can’t tell me your hands are tied on this.”
Most members of the public speaking at the meeting were people with experience as first responders.
Among those are former San Juan County Emergency Medical Service (EMS) Director Linda Simmons.
Simmons said she dealt with a similar issue regarding full-time employees while working for the county and she understood that there are risks involved for the city.
Simmons says while she understands the city is taking on risk by not following the policy, she argues they are taking on greater risk by not having Jacobsen on the fire department.
“If someone’s house burns down and God forbid someone dies in there, that is a guaranteed liability, which will probably be five times higher than the policy that gets torn apart by not following it or because some employee didn’t like your labor law or they didn’t think it was fair to sue you for that that which they may or may not win.
“The other is a guaranteed loss if you don’t have a truck that rolls out the door.”
Simmons cited an example of a homeowners insurance company suing Monticello due to delayed response to a fire because of an issue with the paging system.
“Don’t waste the resources that you already have because an attorney told you you may or may not get sued.”
Also speaking during public comment was Blanding resident Janet Wilcox. She shared that the fire department was able to save her house from flames due to a quick response.
“When that team can show up quickly it makes a big difference on whether your house survives or not.
“Ours was put out pretty quickly and the main structure did not have to be replaced. They were that efficient.
“I think its really important that people have to have jobs to go along with these volunteer positions. I hope you’ll support Chaz and his ability to continue.”
Council did not have a formal discussion about the policy but council members Chris Ewald and Erik Grover both shared their appreciation for the work of first responders, with Grover adding that previous decisions can be revisited for discussion and reversed.
At the meeting, the council also heard a brief report from Fire Chief Corey Spillman, who shared that he and City Finance Director Kim Palmer had secured a grant to assist in the purchase of nine radios. While the suggested retail price for the nine radios is just shy of $100,000, the city will pay just $11,000.
Additionally, when asked by Grover how many volunteers the department needed to run the truck, Spillman responded that five is most efficient but the department often responds with three, and will page out for additional help if the sevierity of a fire requires additional help.
At the meeting, members of the council also approved a contract with Rural Community Consultants to update the Blanding City General Plan.
Blanding received three bids in a response to a request for proposal, with the winning bid of $67,400 given to Rural Community Consultants, a subsidiary of Jones and DeMille Engineering.
Blanding City received a $70,000 grant from the Utah Department of Transportation to update the city general plan, with a $10,000 match required.
The general plan is a guiding document for all planning in the city including zoning, land use, parks, transportation and other areas.
The process of creating the general plan will involve community input via public meetings, and other mediums.
San Juan County completed an updated general plan in 2018 with the same company.
City Manager David Johnson says the purpose of the plan is to gather community input to plan the future of Blanding.
“A lot of cities run into issues of not properly planning. We know a very tourist city not too far from here that nobody wants Blanding to turn into right?
“A lot of that is because they didn’t plan ahead and the communities voice wasn’t heard ahead of time.
“So we want to make sure that we create a general plan so we can determine collectively how we see the future of Blanding city go.”
At the meeting, council also held a public hearing to solicit input on a lease revenue bond for the Wellness Center. No public comments were submitted at the meeting.
Council did approve a three-year mowing contract for eight different properties in the city. The three year contract is for $26,000 annually for six months of mowing grass across the city.
City Recreation Director David Palmer reported the city has a good relationship with the company awarded the bid, Walker Enterprises, as they have held the contract for the past three years. The contract also allows either party to terminate at the end of each year.
At the meeting, members of the council also approved resolutions outlining the schedule for the 23 council meetings in 2023. Council also approved a resolution outlining the 13 approved city holidays for 2023.

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