Fire Commission sets public meeting to hear testimony on District Staffing needs

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Public Meeting set for Monday, August 6 at 6 p.m. at Chelan Fire Hall to hear testimony from the public on re-running the Levy Lid Lift in November.

by Richard Uhlhorn

It has been a busy fire week around the Lake Chelan Valley over the past week with the Chelan Hills Spring fire in Douglas County that burned almost 2,000 acres and the rash of brush fires on the South Shore of Lake Chelan, the latest being the fire in the 25 Mile Creek State Park area.

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It has been a very busy week for Chelan Fire & Rescue personnel and other agencies fighting brush fires around the area including the Chelan Hills Spring fire up Farnham Canyon that burned close to 2,000 acres.

It has kept the journalism crowd busy trying to keep up with the news, but there is news outside of the actual fires that needs to be reported.

Last Wednesday, July 25, the Chelan County Fire District 7 Fire Commissioners held a special workshop to discuss future staffing issues.

Fire Chief Tim Lemon gave the commissioners four options to consider during the meeting with a staffing goal of having four personnel on the Initial Response Force to meet the intent of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) 296-305-05001(1)(a) of two in/two out when engaged in an interior structure fire, and (11) two in/one out for a known rescue operation. “Initial fire fighting operations shall be organized to ensure that at least four members are assembled before interior fire suppression operations are initiated in a hazardous area.”

Up to this meeting, there has been a concentrated effort by concerned residents and union firefighters to retain the six firefighters who will lose their jobs at the district when the SAFER Grant runs out in December.

This issue has created a tough decision making situation for the three commissioners especially since the Levy Lid Lift attempt in April failed to pass. The push has been to put the issue back on the ballot for the November election and the commissioners are faced with dealing with that situation.

Chief Lemon gave the Commissioners five Options to consider at the workshop.

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Chief Tim Lemon of Fire District 7 gave his Commissioners five separate options on staffing for 2019 with recommendations.

Option 1 –  Retain the SAFER six career firefighters at a cost of $101,862.37 per individual for a year which would cost the District $611,18.20 in 2019. The option with a new revenue source includes two 24 hour stipend positions at a cost of $141,452.10 for a total of $7522,632.30.

This staffing model is $539,671.49 which is more than the District’s tax revenue and leaves $197,046.07 that would have to be made up from other fire department funding sources.

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Assistant Chief Mark Donnell

Lemon reported that the 2019 General Fund surplus or uncommitted revenue is anticipated to be $414.134.13 which would leave $338,496.17 to fully fund the six positions through 2019.

Lemon looked at other revenue stream reductions that could be made including not replacing the Administrative Assistant after she retires saving the District $52,714.69, but he doesn’t recommend not refilling that position. Cut the two 24-hour stipend positions at a cost saving of $141,452.10 and cutting the volunteer points out in 2019 for a cost savings of $75,366.00.

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Deputy Chief Asher is being paid through 2012 with a FEMA SAFER Grant to help with volunteer retention and recruitment with Chelan Fire & Rescue, Chelan County Fire District 8 and Douglas County Fire District 4 at no cost to any of those Districts.

The Commissioners asked Lemon to consider cutting the Chief Officers from three to two, but one is staffed through a FEMA SAFER Grant through 2021 at no cost to the District to focus on Vounteer Recruitment and Retention for Chelan Fire and Rescue, Chelan Fire District 8 and Douglas County Fire District 4.

Option 2 – Retain three SAFER Grant Career Firefighters and two 24-hour stipends.

To retain three SAFER Grant firefighters, it will cost the District $305,590.10. This staffing model includes two 24-hour stipend positions at a cost of $141,452.10 for a total cost of $447,042.20 and is $234,081.39 over tax revenue and leaves $6,680.67 in the uncommitted fund reserves.

Option 3 –  Have three 24-hour Volunteer Stipend Positions if the SAFER six are not retained. These individuals would be structural and wildland fire combat qualified and EMT or First Aid certified as a minimum.

The goal of this option is to have depth of personnel to ensure four personnel are on duty even when personnel are off-duty on approved leave. Stipend positions are budgeted at $90 per 12 hour shift and provide the most opportunities for volunteer to participate with the least amount of qualification/certification and restrictions, but the challenge would be to find enough personnel that want to pull full shifts.

The total cost of Option 3 is $212,178.15  which is $782.66 below tax revenue and leaves the District with $319,832.73 of uncommitted funds.

Option 4 –  Hire five Summer-Seasonal and Stipend Positions who are subject to overtime after 40 hours and only work part of the year. These individuals would be required to be fire combat, red card and EMT or FA certified at a cost of $732.94 per week.

These five would provide additional coverage through  the busy months (May, June, July, August, September and October.). This would provide additional personnel during peak call times at a cost of $95,282.07 for the six month period.

To maintain four on duty personnel the District would still need to stipend firefighters to cover evenings throughout the year and days on the off season at an additional coast of $159,278.94.

Total cost of Option 4 is estimated at $235,561.01 which is $41,600.20 over tax revenue and leaves $263,322.25.

Option 5 – Hire three On-Call fire combat qualified, red card, EMT or FA certified personnel as part time employees on an hourly wage and limited to no more than 30 hours per week.

Total cost of this Option would be $424,356.30 which would be $211.396.49 over tax revenue.

Chief Lemon recommended Option 2 and if unable to secure new revenue in 2019, he recommends moving to Option 3 in the foreseeable future.

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Commission Chair Russ Jones has called for a public meeting on August 6 to hear both sides of the argument on re-running the Levy Lid Lift in November. 

Commission Chair Russ Jones feels it will be a couple of years before the District can safely run a levy lift. “Our goal is to have four firefighters on 24/7,” said Jones. Commissioner Jay Witherbee said, “We are looking for a sustainable budget.” Chief Lemon said depending on what scenario the District looks at the money taken out of reserves for Option 1 would limit that capacity in 2019.

Lemon also said that there is some money left over from the SAFER Grant that could be used in 2019, but that the District has to let the firefighters know. “They are actually looking at (opportunities) at other Districts,” said Lemon.

Jones stated that an all volunteer department is probably not in the cards. “It isn’t what it was 20 or even 10 years ago.” Jones also remarked that a $.25 cent levy would raise the per thousand rate from the current $.92 cents to $1.17 per thousand in value. “I’m not prepared to go with a levy, but it would be appropriate to hear public testimony on that,” said Jones.

Witherbee said, “I don’t think we can pass a levy… I’m opposed.”

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Commissioner Jay Witherbee is against running a levy at this time and said he would vote No, but would be supportive of whatever the board decides.

Jones called for a Monday, August 6, public meeting at 6 p.m. to determine whether or not the commission should vote to run a ballot or not on the November election.

Commissioner Moller stated he would agree to a public meeting to hear their views, but with the caveat that only residents registered in the District be able to comment. Jones said, “I agree… I think we can ask that.”

Witherbee said, “I will still vote NO on a levy lid lift… even if you fill the room you know how its going to go. It’s not going to change anything but I will be supportive of whatever the board decides on.”

Jones added that he would like to hear both sides of the issue… those who are against putting the the levy back on the ballot and those who are for it.

Chief Lemon asked the commission what outcome they expect from the meeting and Jones said, following the public testimony the commission would vote on a resolution.

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