JEROME -- A city council meeting included members expressing disappointment and an apology from the mayor and city administrator, all dealing with an invoice sent to a property owner a couple weeks ago.
Sylvia Moore contacted KTVB after the City of Jerome sent her a nearly $97,000 bill for the fire response to her building, which caught on fire April 30. The fire is believed to be the largest in the city's history.
City: 'The invoice... was sent in error'
The day after KTVB reported the story, the city took back the bill, saying it was sent in error and the city deeply regrets this error. After that, KTVB put in public information requests asking for city fire and police reports, previous invoices, and emails about the fire and billing amongst city officials.
Based on the documentation, it appears the four-page, itemized bill was discussed internally for days before it was sent, and there was a lot of disagreement amongst city officials once the public found out about it.
This situation has just got me all flabbergasted. I'm outraged, longtime Jerome resident, Lois Gehrig said. I was shocked. I was outraged.
City official emails reveal time spent to draft invoice
Emails obtained by KTVB show that days before the bill was mailed, faxed and emailed to Moore, employees including the fire chief, the city administrator and assistant finance director discussed the bill and how much it would be.
Those emails also reveal evidence that at least one agency on the bill, the rural fire department, wasn't contacted and didn't want to be billing the property owner at all.
The city council was also left out. Once members found out, Councilman Chris Barber sent out emails to city administrators calling the situation an embarrassment and a joke. Councilman Dale Ross told KTVB he too is embarrassed and disappointed the bill went out without the council's approval.
Councilman: 'We can't conduct ourselves like this'
You know we can't conduct ourselves like this and be respected in our community, the Magic Valley, Idaho, said Councilman Dale Ross.
At Tuesday night's crowded meeting, he brought the issue up saying he was looking for answers in order to make future decisions.
I would say it's deep within the fire department. It's a culture that we need to change throughout the administration, Ross said.
Councilman Barber also spoke out at the Tuesday night meeting, calling for change and expressing frustration that city administrators discussed the bill via email without consulting council members.
Somebody can't tell me that in seven days, with the visits we make to city hall that somebody didn't say, 'Oh hey, we put this bill together. Would you like to see the $97,000 bill you're about to sign your name to? Sure would have been nice. Saved a lot of embarrassment, said Barber. Somebody, whether it's the fire chief, the mayor, or the city administrator should have let us know. You guys know what the chain of command is.
Mayor, city administrator, fire chief apologize
The mayor immediately apologized when Barber brought up his point.
You're absolutely right, councilman. And I apologize for not letting you know sooner. said Mayor John Shine.
City Administrator Polly Hulsey also made a public apology to the entire community.
The invoice we sent out was a mistake. For that, I sincerely apologize. I wish it hadn't happened. I wish I could go back and recreate it, said Hulsey.
Though the apologies were appreciated by Moore, some council members indicated lingering questions.
I don't know how you make a 'clerical error' of that size, said Barber.
Fire Chief: 'We're just carrying out the task'
After the council meeting, KTVB asked Fire Chief Jack Krill, who spoke with us when the bill was first issued, to find out what happened. How had a four-page itemized invoice, discussed for days, get sent in error?
It's an unfortunate situation, and we wouldn't want it to happen again. We're going to make sure it doesn't happen again, said Krill.
Krill said he didn't know how it happened and wouldn't comment on who started the move to issue an invoice.
We're just carrying out the task. It was just an error by a lot of people that were involved, and we were just carrying out the task we've done in the past, Krill said. I'm sorry it happened, I'm sorry it hurt the community. Hopefully it won't happen again, and we'll move forward from it.
City fire department will now absorb costs
The city council said until it gets more answers, no decisions can be made on staff issues, or possible policies for billing in the future.
I hope everything goes well, because I just feel for everybody, every resident in Jerome. I feel like if anybody sees my house on fire, don't call the Jerome Fire Department if they pass this fire policy, said Gehrig.
Chief Krill told KTVB in May that they needed to recover the extreme costs of fighting this fire. On Tuesday, he said the department, like all city departments, will adjust to absorb the costs now and says some savings from not having a deputy chief for months will help.