Critics say other options should be explored
East County Fire and Rescue is asking voters to approve a bond on Nov. 5 that would support the purchase of fire apparatus and equipment, and support repairs and improvements at three of its stations.
The $1.275 million, 20-year capital projects bond would fund two new fire engines, one brush truck, new fire fighting and medical equipment, an emergency generator at Mount Norway Station 94, parking lot repair at Sunnyside Station 93 and a water well at Livingston Mountain Station 92.
It is estimated that the bond would cost taxpayers 9 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation. This means that the owner of a $300,000 home would pay approximately $27 per year.
ECFR Commission Chairman Gary Larson said the amount of money needed each year to repair the three aging engines, which range from 14 to 20 years old, absorbs 30 percent of the district’s $29,000 maintenance budget.
“The bond is necessary because the equipment is wearing out, and the cost to maintain it is increasing each year,” he said. “And leasing isn’t an option because there is no room in our current budget for that kind of line item.
“The fire district, the board, the staff, we looked at every option out there,” Larson continued. “There really isn’t any good alternatives.”
ECFR Commissioner Martha Martin isn’t convinced that statement is true. In July, she and fellow commissioner Mike Berg voted against putting then bond issue on the ballot. She suggested the district look deeper into options to address the issues with its aging fleet.Martin explained that the apparatus in ECFR’s current fleet are being well maintained by the district. There is no reason, she said, to rush to replace them now and ask the voters to come up with more money out of their pockets.
“I am still thinking we could be leasing something or putting together a capital replacement plan. It’s like a savings plan — putting money away,” she said. “That was my concern, that we need to look at that first, before we go to the taxpayers.”
Larson said an ending fund balance is typically available at the close of each fiscal year but, he added, for the past four to five years that money has ended up being dedicated to supporting firefighter personnel costs.
“When there is extra money, we try to put that into an equipment replacement fund,” Larson said, adding that he estimates that the fund currently has less than $200,000. “Right now, there’s not even enough in there for one apparatus.”
Chief Scott Koehler said the fire district’s budget has decreased from $2 million per year in 2008 to $1.4 million in 2013. Prior to the economic downturn and assessed value decline, the district used cash to purchase most of its apparatus.
ECFR’s general obligation bond is now at its statutory limit of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value. This money supports its operations as well as payments on its non-voted debt — a “councilmanic” bond used to fund the construction of the Fern Prairie fire station in 2008.
Koehler said the district has been working to cut its costs, including layoffs of administrative personnel equal to 1.5 full-time equivalent employee hours at the end of 2012. This effort to retain firefighter positions saved the district approximately $95,000 annually, he said.
“We have not asked for extra money in years,” Koehler said. “We have done everything we absolutely could to survive.”
Roger Daniels, who wrote the statement opposing the bond for the voter’s pamphlet along with Martin and commission candidate Thomas Gianatasio, said he is concerned about how the district’s money has been managed over the course of more than a decade.
“I just don’t think that the fire district has been spending the taxpayers’ money wisely,” said Daniels, who served as a commissioner for Fire District 1 before it merged with District 9 to create ECFR in 2006. “They have done a number of things that have made me question some of the poor choices they’ve made.”
His examples include building the new Fern Prairie Station 91 when there is a possibility that area it could eventually be annexed into city limits, and ‘abandoning’ the 39th Street Station 95 in Washougal after money was spent on its remodel and expansion in 2002.
The district moved its administrative offices and headquarters to the Fern Prairie station when it was completed in 2008. This is the area where it responds to the majority of its calls.
Daniels also questioned some more recent decisions, including allowing an assistant chief to drive to and from work in an ECFR rig and have its gas and maintenance paid for by the district.
“That is an expensive perk,” Daniels said. “I believe that is wasteful.”
Larson responded that the employment contracts for both the chief and deputy chief stipulate that the rigs can be taken home. In turn, those employees are expected to be available to respond at a moment’s notice.
“When the big event occurs,” he said, “we expect our chief and deputy chief to be there.”
Daniels also wondered why a volunteer firefighter and his family live rent-free in Bear Prairie Station 96, which is a 3,000 square foot house purchased by the district in 2008.
“If that were a rental property, it would probably go for $1,200 to $1,500 per month in rent,” Daniels said. “Why not charge him $500 in rent?”
Larson said in lieu of a volunteer stipend, the volunteer and his family do live in the house rent-free but are required to pay for utilities and upkeep of the home. The volunteer firefighter at Station 96 responds to more calls than anyone else in the district.
“He more than earns his keep,” Larson said.
Daniels and Martin both expressed concern about the fact that if property that is now located within the district is someday annexed into the city limits of Camas or Washougal, the tax burden would not be carried with the property. The district’s remaining property owners would be left to absorb those bond costs.
Larson said, however, that’s not a scenario he spends much time worrying about.
Washougal leaders, he explained, have assured ECFR officials that they are not in a position to annex any new property, and Camas will have its hands full developing the hundreds of acres north of Lacamas Lake that were already annexed into the city in 2008 and are the focus of a recently approved development agreement.
ECFR provides fire protection and emergency medical service response to approximately 10,000 residents who live in the 60 square miles of rural southeastern Clark County. It has six stations, two of which are staffed 24-hours-a-day. Its staff includes nine full-time and five part-time firefighters and approximately 50 volunteers.