SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Locked out! Uintah City Volunteer Firefighters say that’s what happened to them as the city inches closer to total annexation with the Weber Fire District.
49 years of history and tradition could be lost inside a state-funded firehouse, and there may be only one option left to save the Uintah City Fire Department: Lieutenant Governor Deidre Henderson.
ABC4 News began investigating the case in December. At the center of this controversy is Mayor Gordon Cutler.
Firefighters say he waged a personal vendetta against the department, and Mayor Cutler did not disagree with the accusations.
Patti Sawyer is one of the roughly 1,500 Utahns who call Uintah City home.
For 17 years, she has lived down the street from Station 91, a more than $500,000 facility that houses the volunteer firefighters.
“You know, a lot of money went into that,” says Sawyer. “They got grants and stuff, and I’m like, wow, we put all that money into it, and now we are not going to use it.”
When city leaders unanimously voted to annex with the Weber Fire District, Sawyer was left with many questions.
“What’s the bottom line? That’s what I want to know,” she says.
To get to the bottom line, ABC4 News Investigator Jason Nguyen went to Uintah City Mayor Gordon Cutler.
“We love our firefighters,” says Mayor Cutler. “They’ve done a wonderful job when they are here, but they are just not close enough to respond.”
Response times are a big issue. So ABC4 News put them to the test following traffic laws.
It took us 2 minutes and 35 seconds to travel from Uintah City Fire Station 91 to 1540 E and 6650 S.
In contrast, it took 7 minutes and 16 seconds to get there from Weber Fire District Station 64, almost five minutes longer.
However, Mayor Cutler says only one of the 12 volunteer firefighters lives in Uintah City. Those firefighters have to go to the station before answering a call which could take more than 10 minutes.
“Those people could not respond to a fire, a structure fire especially, in Uintah City in a timely manner,” says the Mayor.
Firefighters say it was under the mayor’s leadership that Station 91 faltered, beginning back when he was a member of the city council.
“Funding was an issue primarily, and then when the programs were weened away from the department, we just kept getting our hands tied more and more with what we were allowed to do,” says former Fire Marshall and Chief of Uintah City Fire Department Marc Sacco.
Sacco joined the department in 2014, and resigned last August.
It was around that time Mayor Cutler says he went shopping for a new fire department.
“I approached Weber Fire District and asked them what would it take to annex in there because that’s the easiest way to do,” says Mayor Cutler.
One of them, the deadly Mendocino Complex Fire in Northern California that claimed the life of Unified Fire Authority’s Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett.
“And our hearts still go out to the Burchett family,” says Sacco.
Mayor Cuttler tells us, “I had philosophical differences with the fire department, specifically over the Wildland fire department. Again, a city of 1,500 sending people to fight forest fires in California, I did not agree with that.”
The mayor may not agree with sending the volunteer firefighting force out of state, but the practice is a huge revenue source for the city.
The fire department made $119,845.58 on the deployments.
$61,172.82 went to a city agreement for renting a brush truck.
With everything paid off, the city made $30,129.89 for the General Fund.
“We were looking at the Wildland department as a way to help bring revenue and money into the city, and into the department so that we weren’t relying on grants and tax dollars to fund the department,” says former Uintah City Fire Battalion Chief Casey Christiansen.
Christiansen was in charge of the remaining volunteers at the fire station. The city terminated his contract around the time it changed the locks on Station 91.
The Battalion Chief says the mayor cut EMS Service, Staffing, the Explorer, and Wildland Firefighter Programs.
“Looking [at] the past city council meeting minutes and things that he said, it feels like a personal vendetta against us for things that happened before he was mayor, and he is trying to erase those,” says Christiansen.
If the Weber Fire District and Uintah City annexation gets approval by the state, a city representative will need to sit on its board, which is a paid position.
“I said that I thought maybe the mayor should be there the first little while,” says Mayor Cutler.
That’s news that doesn’t sit well with Patti Sawyer and some of her neighbors.
She says, “I think they should wait anyway just to let the public, the Uintah citizens get more information, and I think it should go to a vote next November and be on the ballot.”
ABC4 News Investigator Jason Nguyen spoke with Chief Paul Sullivan with Weber Fire District about the annexation. He says the department put together a plan at the city’s request. The Chief plans on using Fire Station 91 for Wildland Fire Teams in the summer of 2021.
Lt. Gov. Henderson’s staff tells ABC4 that Uintah City and Weber Fire District have until February 11 to officially submit their application. Prior to approving the annexation, Lt. Gov. Henderson will review state laws and requirements.
Mayor Cutler believes he’ll have an answer from Lt. Gov. Henderson on the annexation within 30-days.