Commissioners split on fire plan contractor


The Moffat County Land Use Board recommended the Board of County Commissioners hire a temporary employee to plan and coordinate the county fire plan, but two commissioners said they would reject the recommendation.

After deciding the county had to do something this year to mitigate the county's liability for fire on private lands, the Land Use Board advised the commissioners to hire an employee who would work from June until at least December to begin work on the fire plan. The position would be funded by county dollars and a $2,500 grant from the environmental activist group The Nature Conservancy.

But Commissioners Les Hampton and Darryl Steele said they preferred to hire a contractor to begin work on the fire plan this summer. Both said they thought hiring a contractor was the only way to ensure the county would have a product to show for its money.

"If the expectation is three (plans) for $10,000 each, I'd be surprised if we could get someone on staff for seven months with that expertise," Steele said.

The county has no formal goal concerning the amount of work to be completed on the fire plan this year. But whatever work is done would focus on Wilderness Ranch, Bakers Peak and Knez Divide, the three communities that have been identified as high priority areas within the fire plan, said Jeff Comstock, Moffat County Natural Resources director.

Much of the work will consist of sitting down with homeowners to discuss what their communities need in terms of fire management, Comstock said. That could mean identifying the locations of needed fuel breaks or brush beatings. But no money has been allotted to implement those plans.

Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos favored hiring an employee to avoid legal problems that could arise if a contractor were to work on the fire plan. A contractor could not legally use any county equipment or work in the courthouse, she said.

Land Use Board members favored hiring a temporary employee because it could be the most cost-effective option. If the county were to raise enough grant money to continue the position into 2005, the employee's fire plan knowledge would stay with the county, rather than leaving with a contractor.

However, as things now stand, the county doesn't have enough money to pay a fire plan staff member for more than seven months of work. Steele said he worried much of that time would be eaten up by training if the county hired a staff member.

Hampton said he was concerned a temporary staff member might quit after only a short time if they got a better job offer. But if the county signed a contract with a contractor, they would be guaranteed the expected amount of work would be done.

The county budgeted $15,000 to begin implementing the fire plan this year. The commissioners haven't decided whether they will accept the $2,500 that The Nature Conservancy is offering, concerned that by accepting the money they would give the environmental group leverage in Moffat County.

The agenda of Friday's Land Use Board meeting was delayed while commissioners and Land Use Board members debated the pros and cons of accepting the money. Comstock said that the management at The Nature Conservancy is growing frustrated at the county's suspicions over the contribution, which he said has no strings attached. The Nature Conservancy made the offer at the end of January.

Aside from the county money and The Nature Conservancy grant, the only other money available to pay a contractor is a $30,000 grant from Bureau of Land Management. But Comstock said he doesn't know whether the BLM would approve using that grant to fund a staff position. A $200,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is pending, and $30,000 of that could be used to fund a staff position. The results of the FEMA grant should be known in August or September.

Raftopoulos said they would decide what route to go down at a commissioner meeting May 10. The Land Use Board hoped to award the position or contract by May 21, and whoever gets the job would start June 1.

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