Fire commissioners under fire from outside fire fighter groups

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by Richard Uhlhorn

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Chelan County Fire District # 7 Fire Commissioners came under direct fire from retired firefighters from outside the area wanting the failed levy to be put back on the ballot for November to retain the six career firefighters who will lose their jobs when grant money ends.

Chelan County Fire District 7 (Chelan Fire & Rescue) commissioners came under direct fire at the regularly scheduled Fire Commission meeting on Wednesday evening, July 11 by a number of retired fire fighters and several concerned residents who accused them of playing politics with the public safety of the community because they weren’t putting the recent lid levy lift back on the ballot for November.

The Levy which was put in front of Chelan residents on April 24, 2018, failed by 60 t0 40 percent. The primary purpose of the levy was to retain six career firefighters who are currently being paid through a grant that ends at the end of this year. The cost to retain these firefighters was $860,000 per year. The voters, tired of new tax increases, voted overwhelmingly No.

At Wednesday’s meeting, a number of retired firefighters and a few concerned citizens showed up to show support for putting the measure back on the ballot for November.

Mike Cavanaugh, a retired firefighter from the Redmond area stated during the public comment period that losing half of the staff did not make him very excited. He told the commissioners that he had emailed them and the chief, but that only the chief replied. He accused the district of not educating the public about the importance of having a full staff to protect the public.

He asked them to find a funding source and said, “I am holding you accountable by November.” He also stated that he was not asked to be at the meeting. “Not a single union member asked me to be here.” He asked that the department not go backwards. “Step up to the plate… educate the community.”

Another retired firefighter said he supported what previous speakers stated. “It’s on you,” he told the commissioners. “We need you people to run this again. I would like to see it backout. Two hundred people need to be educated.”

Jacklyn Dalton, a local resident told the commissioners that Chief Lemon always responds to her emails, but that they, the commissioners, do not. She read some letters she had collected from the community reiterating the need to retain full staffing. One wrote, “Without your current staffing the entire community is put at risk.” She remarked that the 2-in 2-out law made it impossible on a reduced full time staff. “Put this back on the ballot… if they vote it down (again) I’ll back off,” she said.

Larry Peabody, another retired firefighter with 38 years service in Kirkland, told the commissioners that Chelan was now his home and his future. He stated that he had nothing against volunteers and said he started out as a volunteer, but volunteerism is facing severe challenges across the nation. “We will support you as you support us,” he said. “Educate the public. Your PR machine is broken.”

John Carbon, who is currently building a home in Chelan and retired with 30 years in the Woodinville Fire Department, said that the District, even with current staffing levels, is understaffed. “I mean no disrespect for any volunteer… I started as a volunteer,” said Carbon. “This department is out of balance. A little bit of education goes a long way.”

After the citizen comment period, Dan Crandall, President of the Firefighter’s Association said that the Association board had discussed about what, as a 501 (c) 3 non-profit, they could do or not do, decided to remain neutral to protect “our non-profit status.”

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Commissioner Jay Witherbee, Phil Moller and Chairman Russ Jones were the subjects of a discussion about the failed April 24 levy and the lack of public education to the need to keep current staffing despite the public voting 60 to 40 percent to not approve the levy lid lift. The arguments to put the measure back on the ballot did not work.

During the Commissioner’s comment period, it became clear that they were not pleased. Phil Moller stated that he felt blindsided. “I’m always looking for input from the community,” he said.

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Russ Jones said, “As commissioners, we can’t advocate… we are here to represent the community and I don’t see a climate change out there (for a new ballot measure).”

Jones remarked at the number of times the hospital had to run a bond issue to get a new hospital. “Our failure is only two months ago. I haven’t seen any change (in attitudes). The last campaign was force. There is not the support to do that (again),” he said.

Commissioner Jay Witherbee said, “I believe Chelan County Fire District 7 needs more money. Today, I would have to say No (to a new ballot measure).”

In the end, it was a disappointing evening for the proponents of putting the measure back on the ballot. The commissioners did not seem to rule out another levy in the future, but at this time are totally against any levy in this atmosphere.

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