Press "Enter" to skip to content

Spearfish City Council Proposes Full-Time Fire Chief to Beat Back Fire Protection District Proposal

Where’s the fire? At Spearfish City Hall Monday night, May 4, when the Spearfish City Council will give second reading and a public hearing to Ordinance 1212, which would authorize the city to hire a full-time fire chief to run the Spearfish Volunteer Fire Department. Currently the fire chief is chosen by the members of the SVFD itself, which has operated as an independent organization, not a city department, since 1881, before the incorporation of Spearfish.

What’s really happening is a struggle over power and money. Saying that fundraising isn’t keeping up with growth around Spearfish, the Spearfish Volunteer Fire Department has proposed creating a fire protection district, a political subdivision that would have its own authority to levy taxes on property in Spearfish and much of Lawrence County. The city balked at joining the district in February. Now Mayor Dana Boke is campaigning against the district as big taxes and big government:

The SVFD is currently collecting signatures in an effort to create a Fire District (a new governmental agency) empowered with taxing authority over Spearfish.  While this would give them significantly increased funding, it would do so by adding an additional tax on property owners and create an added layer of government.

The Council and I cannot support this tax hike on our citizens [Dana Boke, “Spearfish Fire Protection: How It Affects You,” personal blog, 2015.05.01].

Armed with a godawful jumble of an infographic, Mayor Boke contends that by hiring a fire chief, the city will give taxpayers accountability and transparency without raising taxes. How the city gets the money for a new executive-level employee not currently on the payroll is anyone’s guess. The SVFD says Mayor Boke gets a lot of facts about the fire protection district wrong:

  • Mayor Boke says the fire protection district would be governed by a board selected by the fire fighters. SVFD says “A Fire Protection District is governed by a PUBLICLY ELECTED Board of Directors (NOT firefighters, and anyone can run) with representatives elected from both inside and outside city limits, eliminating power of one over the other.”
  • Mayor Boke says the district could tax “ALL Property Owners” (ALL, yes, as in everyone who might be affected by a fire and who might enjoy the services of the SVFD) at a rate of $200 to $320 on $200,000 of assessed value. This statement is true, but the SVFD says their projections show the cost will be at the very bottom of that range. The Black Hills Pioneer confirms that the SVFD has lowered its projected levy need from 1.3 mills to 0.93, which would mean $186 in new taxes per $200K value.
  • The SVFD accuses Mayor Boke of cherry-picking numbers, highlighting a high year for city contributions to the fire department’s budget and ignoring the annual fluctuations based on vehicle replacement.
  • The SVFD says Mayor Boke’s infographic unrealistically compares Spearfish’s fire department to city-run departments in larger South Dakota cities that have “astronomical wage/benefits costs.”

The fundraising-vs.-taxes argument harkens to a discussion at P&R Miscellany about charity vs. government. Providing for the general welfare by voluntary charity is great, but if charity can’t keep up with needs, what’s wrong with turning to government? P&R frets over taking money by mandatory taxation, but it seems reasonable to require every taxpayer to chip in for a service every taxpayer receives.

The Spearfish Volunteer Fire Department has put up its own website to talk about the fire protection district and the competing Ordinance 1212. Read up, then head for City Hall in Spearfish Monday night to see if the community can put out this fire and agree on how to fund and run its volunteer fire department.


  1. Paul Seamans 2015-05-02 13:46

    Jones County has created a west fire district which includes the town of Murdo and the east district that includes Draper. Board members are elected district wide although there aren’t any elections as nobody wants the job. The volunteer fire department remains independent. The main thing that the district board does is ask the VFD what they need to operate and then we set the mil levy. We opted out recently with no dissension. Taxes are around 3 cents per acre of farmland. The people that use the service are the same ones paying for it.

  2. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-05-02 14:08

    Just how it should work, right Paul?

    It seems person irresponsibility has become a cornerstone of Republican* governance. They should not have to pay for services like fire, police, infrastructure and other needs via reasonable taxation. The only acceptable taxes are those on the 99% that flow back to the 1% through war profiteering and other such means.

    *Nope, not all Republicans, just those in positions of economic and/or political power.

  3. larry kurtz 2015-05-02 16:11

    County seats in Deadwood, Sturgis and Belle Fourche? What a waste of money and resources!

    Stupid state.

  4. W R Old Guy 2015-05-02 18:32

    I have been involved with fire districts in Meade county since the late 1980s. The districts were formed due to having less than 30% of our residents donating to the fire departments leaving the rest to pick up the slack.

    The Spearfish VFD is a respected department and the website they put up is factual.

    Here is a link to SD Law on Fire districts;

    I question the authority of the City of Spearfish to hire a Fire Chief to run an agency that is independent of the city. Is there a written contract between the two entities? Is any of the equipment titled to the city or joint titled between the two?

    The people should be allowed to vote. A VFD still has most of the funding needs of a paid department minus wages and benefits. New fire trucks now cost in the $500,000,000.00 range and aerial ladder trucks can easily exceed $1,000,000,000.00.

    It appears that the Mayor and council are more interested in having the control of the department than allowing the people to vote.

  5. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-05-02 18:37

    I’m not doubting you WR, I just want to be sure I’m reading your comment correctly:

    Half a billion for a new fire truck?
    A full billion for a range and ladder truck?

  6. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-05-02 20:31

    Thanks for the link Mike. I don’t usually write out big numbers like that because all the numbers and digits can get so confusing. I applaud WR for giving it a shot.

  7. W R Old Guy 2015-05-02 20:55

    OOPS! Yep, I put too many zeros in there. How about 1/2 million for an engine and one million for a ladder truck? That does not include equipment as pointed out in the link that Mike posted. In addition each firefighter is outfitted with several thousand dollars worth of protective gear such as pants, coat , helmet, boots, etc.

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-05-03 07:22

    WR, I got the sense from SVFD lawyer Eric Nies’s comments that he takes the same position you do about the strangeness of the city taking authority over the SVFD with a fire chief. Indeed, if SVFD is an independent private organization, not a city department, how can the city establish any authority thereover? Nies appears to have a legal challenge in mind if the city passes Ordinance 1212. I wonder… would the volunteer firemen refuse to recognize the city-appointed chief and continue to follow the chief they choose themselves?

    Paul’s example from Jones County is interesting. Do fire departments in general show us an example of how charity is failing to handle contemporary problems and how we must step in with governmental solutions?

  9. mhs 2015-05-03 07:38

    Both side here need a dose of reality. That levy is way too high for a protection district and a non-started if I was a taxpayer. Clearly, the proposed district will have far too small a tax base, Paul’s example of the two Jones Co. Districts are much more the norm. Likewise, the hire-a-chief plan is simply silly. Spearfish needs to buck up, make the Department a city enterprise and fully fund it with city tax revenues, not just pay a salary and leave the Dept to raise the rest. Voluntary-support fire departments can’t survive with the costs associated these days and, what the heck, shouldn’t we all pay for fire protection?

  10. Nick Nemec 2015-05-03 07:46

    Fire protection is one of those services rightly paid for with tax dollars. We’ve relied on charity in this area for too long.

  11. John 2015-05-03 10:44

    Just on which ballot do the PUBLICLY ELECTED board of the SVFD appear? The municipal ballot? – which I cannot touch because I live in the SVFD district but yet outside of the municipality. Never recall seeing SVFD directors on a county/state/federal ballot.

    Our sympathies should be the mayor and folks similarly situated seeking to batten down bureaucrats every attempt to raise taxes being they “fees” like the near 100% raise of the vehicle registration fee in 3-4 years, or gas tax, or outrageous raising of utility rates, etc., – without improving services, reducing inefficiencies, or making services more effective.

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-05-03 11:23

    John, I would imagine the SVFD doesn’t have public elections right now. A move to a fire protection district would change that situation and place their names on a ballot you can access.

    MHS, if the tax base is insufficient to support a fire protection district, wouldn’t the same be true about the donor base? Wouldn’t your argument means there’s no solution other than getting everyone to stop playing with matches?

  13. W R Old Guy 2015-05-03 11:48

    I don’t know if the existing Spearfish firefighters would follow a chief appointed by the city. Anecdotal stories from other parts of the country seem to indicate that many would resign with a few staying on. The legality of the city in appointing a chief is the big question.

    Yes there is a general nationwide problem with the volunteer fires services on fund raising by donation and in recruiting members to be firefighters. It requires a tremendous amount of time and effort to become a firefighter. The state of South Dakota requires completion of a Firefighter I course which can easily run 100 hours of classroom and practical sessions. Add in Wildland Fire Certification and EMT certification for an additional 200 hours of training or so. Then there are monthly meetings, training classes and you have a lot of time away from the family. Adding fund raising requires more time.

    The fire districts work well. The maximum mill levy is 1.2 mills ($1.20 per $1000.00 assessed). This is split .6 mill for operational expenses and .6 for capital outlay. There are a number of fire districts in the Black Hills. Piedmont, Black Hawk, North Haines, Rapid Valley, and Box Elder to name a few. The formation of these districts allowed the firefighters to get away from the fundraisers and upgrade services. I would think there is plenty of tax base in the Spearfish area.

    Used fire apparatus is a gamble. Low mileage does not always mean a functional apparatus. The odometer reading is not a good indication of the amount of use. Hours on the engine, fire pump, and aerial ladder tell a better tale. Are the pump and ladder certifications current? Pump rebuilds start around ten thousand dollars and go up from there. Aerial rebuilds are even more costly. The insurance companies generally do not recognize an uncertified fire apparatus and may raise the fire insurance rates for property owners in the department’s response area. Most departments plan on a 10 -15 year front line use of a fire apparatus with another 10 years or so of reserve service.

    “One man built the Keystone, SD Fire Department by standing in front of the Ruby House and selling lottery tickets to tourists.” True but how many years did it take and what would it cost now?” I could buy a new basic fire truck in 1981 for fifty thousand dollars. Today I would spent closer to five hundred thousand dollars.

    John, You did not vote for the directors of the Spearfish VFD because the are currently a private nonprofit organization. Their directors are elected/appointed in accordance with their by laws. You would vote on directors for the fire district if one is formed.

  14. Spearfish Valley 2015-05-03 13:01

    How I read it, SVFD can still have a fire protection district outside of the city limits and run their department as they please there. The ordinance by the city will only effect the city of Spearfish and incorporated property. SD codified laws grant the cities that ability to do so. Just because SVFD says they will start at a low mill levy, doesn’t mean next year they won’t raise it. The SVFD just bought a $200,000 rescue chassis and now wants $300,000 more for the rest of the truck. For one rescue truck! This is not fiscal responsibility, it’s I got nicer toys then you syndrome. My opinion is both SVFD and the city of Spearfish are drawing a hard line to see who will blink first. This attitude puts all of us at risk and shame on them both.

  15. John 2015-05-03 19:06

    Hey, quoted from the post, above: “SVFD says “A Fire Protection District is governed by a PUBLICLY ELECTED Board of Directors (NOT firefighters, and anyone can run) with representatives elected from both inside and outside city limits, eliminating power of one over the other.”

    So maybe the SVFD’s info is ‘less-than-accurate’? My concern remains that little aggravation causing an earlier revolution, taxation sans representation.

  16. W R Old Guy 2015-05-03 20:39

    John, The Spearfish VFD and proposed Spearfish Fire District are two different organizations. I am not sure where you find a less than accurate on Spearfish VFD’s objections to the proposed ordinance. The Spearfish VFD could try to form a separate fire district outside the city limits The district would not have any representatives from the city. The city and the fire district could negotiate the fee the city would have to pay for fire and rescue services or the city could form their own municipal department at a cost of millions of dollars.

  17. Daniel Buresh 2015-05-04 11:22

    I’m just curious how this would be different than let’s say Madison’s setup? Here is how that works.

    Madison’s fire dept has a single paid chief and everyone else is volunteer. Recruitment is all dealt with through the fire dept. The city has no say. We follow all city rules as it pertains to city property, however, volunteers have no obligation to act as city employees. Each year, we as volunteers vote on keeping our chief or replacing them for a new one. IF we vote out the chief, those findings are sent to the city commissioners who would then proceed on finding a new chief. I don’t believe they are obligated to, but as far as I know they would if there essentially is a vote of no-confidence by volunteer members.

    We receive funds from the county, city, and fundraising. We have trucks that are specific to the city and trucks that are specific to the rural areas. There is a rural fire board that controls the funding for rural apparatus. City commissioners control funding for city apparatus. Randy is in charge of any fire that occurs within the city. If it is a rural fire, the assistant chief is in charge who is Todd Balough.

    As it pertains to SVFD and their webpage listing out their issues, here are my concerns.

    1. I find every one of these concerns a bit dramatic. We have none of these problems. The chief is involved in more politics and does listen to city leaders but very little of that falls down to volunteers. The chief always is acting in our best interests.

    2. I find most of these hard to believe as well.

    3. Correct, city trucks can only go to city fires. Rural trucks go to rural fires. If there is a critical emergency, we can do that differently but we can’t leave ourselves short in case another call comes in.

    4. I don’t see this as much of a concern. Mutual aid agreements are generally wanted by both parties. Money does not change hands. Simply, if things get ugly and we need help, we will call and vice versa.

    This relationship they are trying to form doesn’t seem that much different and I feel they may be dramatizing what having a paid chief will do. In our case, having a paid Chief who came from Sioux Falls Fire and Rescue allows us to have a great leader and teacher who has been involved in some large incidents and has a lot of knowledge that a volunteer chief may not have. I see it as a good thing.

  18. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-05-04 21:57

    WR is right: there is a difference between how the current volunteer fire department makes decisions and how the fire protection district, a governing entity with taxation powers, would operate. All residents would have representation to determine their taxation. Any intolerably high levy could be referred to a vote, just like taxes in cities, counties, and school districts… couldn’t it?

  19. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-05-04 21:59

    Daniel… does the fire department need the city to pay a chief? What is wrong with the current direction of the SVFD by a firefighter chosen by the department itself? Could the city’s resources be used for better purposes?

  20. Daniel Buresh 2015-05-05 08:33

    We couldn’t afford a paid chief otherwise. Now, if you are deciding whether a paid chief is needed, I believe it is considering our size and call volume. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes when we aren’t on a fire call that requires someone full time. In our department, we can choose the chief. The city commissioners would essentially follow what we decide. I don’t know if that has ever been put to the test but that is the way i understand it. I don’t believe those resources could be used better elsewhere. In fact, one could argue that even more public money should go to support every local fire dept. Most volunteers put in 200-300 hours a year and that includes all the fundraising we perform. I think you would see more support from volunteers if that time could be reduced to only emergency calls and training. We basically have to work for free, just so we can fund to work for free. There is a lot of dedication that goes into being a volunteer firefighter.

  21. larry kurtz 2015-05-05 08:56

    Why should unincorporated sections of Spearditch enjoy any protection from SVFD? Why is there not a paid Lawrence County fire department funded by Deadwood preservation dollars? Why isn’t there enough state or FEMA money available for prescribed fires in road ditches to act as fire breaks?

    Because Dennis Daugaard is a failed executive, that’s why.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.