Amid an economy that has been in a recession for several years and is finally beginning to get back on track, now just isn’t the right time to ask East County Fire and Rescue voters to approve a capital improvement bond.
The $1.275 million, 20-year capital projects proposition 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 the owner of a $300,000 home would pay an additional $27 per year, the owner of a $250,000 home would pay $22.50 per year, and the owner of a $200,000 home would pay $18 per year.
Proposition 1 proponents ECFR Chief Scott Koehler and Commission Chairman Gary Larson argue that the district has looked at every possible angle, ranging from leasing vehicles to applying for grant funding. So far, they say, none of those options pan out. But raising a red flag to this argument is that two members of ECFR’s own commission —Martha Martin and Mike Berg — voted not to support sending the issue to voters. Martin, known generally for her calm but questioning approach to most issues, says that she believes more research should be done on alternative options before asking voters for more money. District residents already pay $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value to fund the department’s general operations and payments on a “councilmatic” bond used to build the Fern Prairie fire station in 2008.
This division between one group made up of three of the commission’s most senior members and another group of its two newest members has been apparent in other situations as well, and could signal other issues within the department that need to be resolved. Certainly, a board that is not unified in its belief that certain items need to be funded through a taxpayer approved bond measure is concerning.
Proposition 1 supporters also argue that purchasing brand new equipment is preferable to spending money on continued maintenance of its current fleet. At this point in time, this assertion is debatable. According to ECFR, 30 percent of its $29,000 maintenance budget was spent on the three vehicles that would be replaced by the bond monies. But it is realistic to say that if high quality maintenance work continued, it could render those engines useful for 3 to 6 more years, or longer.
In addition to these issues, there are a couple of question marks looming on the horizon for ECFR. The first is the sunset of a nearly $800,000 grant awarded by the federal government in 2011 to fund the hiring several full-time, paid firefighter positions. Koehler said three of those jobs could be cut if the money is not found in 2014 and beyond to support them. It would be wise to get this situation figured out before asking voters to approve additional money for three additional engines and equipment.
And second, while Larson suggests that it is very unlikely any portion of the currently existing unincorporated areas of Camas and Washougal would be annexed into city limits, that really isn’t something that can be predicted with 100 percent certainty. Within the next 20 years, given how the economy is slowly improving, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see this happen. And if annexation does occur, the residents who remain in the ECFR district boundaries would be left to pick up the tab.
The bottom line is that at this time there are too many questions that haven’t been fully answered — Has the district done enough thorough research on funding alternatives? Will the district have enough money to continue to pay the salaries of the SAFER grant employees? What will the district boundaries look like in 10 to 15 years and how is the district planning for that?
With these issues in mind, at this time the Post-Record recommends that ECFR District taxpayers vote no on Proposition 1.