By Michael Taggart, Guest Columnist
2018 was a particularly challenging year for East County Fire and Rescue (ECFR).
After a long-range budget forecast in 2017 indicated a structural deficit would begin in 2020, we focused on ways to reduce costs even more after 10 years (since 2008) of diligent belt-tightening.
With few additional cuts to be made, it became clear that we needed to ask voters to return our levy to its previous 2008 level, and spent eight months working to educate the citizens that we serve. We mailed flyers, had open houses, spoke to local groups and provided constant updates to the ECFR website.
Unfortunately, partly due to the confusing ballot language, the lid lift did not pass. The board will soon consider asking for a one-time lid lift sometime in 2019 to avoid a reduction of service in the fire district.
The board suffered a loss with the passing of Commissioner Tom Gianatasio. Tom brought years of fire service experience to the board and always had a watchful eye on each expenditure.
We were fortunate that Joshua Seeds applied to, and was appointed by, the Board of Commissioners to fill Tom’s position. Joshua brings a rich background in science and ecology as well as cartography. He is helping us keep our firefighters safer and utilize public funds more efficiently by mapping and visualizing our call response data.
We continued to hold strategic planning meetings, now regularly scheduled at 2 p.m., on the first Wednesday of every month at the Fern Prairie Station (Station 91). Commissioners feel that separate sessions focusing exclusively on future planning are very important. In 2018, topics ranged from partnerships with neighboring agencies, addressing the deferred maintenance of our stations to budget reviews and equipment requirements. These meetings are open to the public, and we encourage folks to attend.
The board and ECFR staff and members continued to review district policies in a multi-year effort to make sure we comply with state law and other requirements. Many of the policies date back to 2007, but we are now approximately 85 percent complete with the review process and have added many necessary changes. By reviewing these documents ourselves rather than paying for a policy service subscription, we are saving taxpayers many thousands of dollars per year.
ECFR took delivery of a new fire engine in July. The Washington Surveying and Rating Bureau requires the replacement of emergency equipment after 20 years. Fortunately, we had established a capital fund and were able to pay cash for the engine. This effort saved taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in interest because we did not need to finance the purchase.
The fire district passed its state-mandated audits for 2015, 2016 and 2017 with no findings. Clean reviews mean that the administrative staff and board of commissioners are doing everything by the book and comply with state law. While this seems like the way it should be, agencies sometimes find themselves in trouble due to ignorance or carelessness. ECFR is committed to the highest levels of integrity and openness.
Another summer open house was held and very well attended by the public — everyone had a great time. We coordinated with our Port of Camas-Washougal neighbors, who were having an event at the airport on the same day. Adults and children enjoyed eating ice cream, touring our station and apparatus, talking with our firefighters and seeing a demonstration on residential fire sprinklers and how they perform using a live fire burn prop. Information was shared with attendees that show how we provide services to our community. For more information about our 2019 open house, visit ecfr.us, or come look at our station bulletin boards.
In 2019, Commissioner Martha Martin will take back the reins as chair, and I will return to being vice-chair. We have learned that to avoid burnout, it’s best to rotate leadership roles after a couple of years.
All five commissioners put in many hours in service to the fire district. Commissioner Mike Berg worked on union contract negotiations as well as attended safety committee meetings. Commissioner Sherry Petty has been spearheading the search for grant opportunities to help offset equipment and maintenance costs. And, as mentioned previously, Commissioner Joshua Seeds hit the ground running by generating maps to help us better understand the utilization of district resources.
To better serve the public, Commissioner Martin and I meet regularly with other local elected officials in neighboring service areas. These meetings keep the lines of informal communication open and foster a collaborative working environment.
Michael Taggart is the vice-chair of the East County Fire and Rescue Board of Commissioners. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.