A fresh start is needed

At Fire Commission meetings, among the multitude of concerns expressed – by the public, paid department employees and commissioners – is the fear that, by 2014 or earlier, the levy lift voted into effect in 1999, will not be renewed.

What would that mean?

Charles Zalmanek, County Assessor, says that in 2007-2008 the highest allowable rate charged property owners is $.9422118 per $1,000 of assessed property value. So that if you owned property worth $100,000 you are assessed roughly $94 per year.

If the lift is not renewed, the amount Fire District property owners would pay would be $.42183 per $1,000, or roughly half of the current amount, Zalmanek calculates. If that rate were applied to the value of the Fire District (its assessed properties), the District’s tax revenues would be $803,705.

The District’s 2008 budget of $1,598,000 calls for expenditures of $722,000 in administration costs.

If the department keeps spending money the way it has been, and if the levy lift is not renewed, there would be roughly $80,000 left (after salaries at their current level) to run the district island-wide.

Hmmmmm.

From matters as minor as cleaning the firehouse to major as financial accounting and training, the district has slid dangerously into shifting job responsibilities, as well as hiked the pay scale radically for other positions.

In 2004, the administrative assistant was paid $40,560. The next year, 2005, the administrative assistant was paid $12,328, while a new position, that of business manager, was paid $49,888. In 2008, there is no administrative assistant, but the operations assistant has taken on those duties, at a salary of $34,000. There is no business manager, but a part-time financial officer is paid $20,800.

Paramedics were paid $108,770 in 2004. They are now paid $238,934.00.

The public education officer was paid $31,200 in 2004. Currently the salary is $46,000.

In 2004, the Department chief was paid $64,000. In 2008, the chief is paid $82,790.

In addition, the Fire Department continues to ask volunteers to step forward – to take minutes, to answer phones, to learn website maintenance – for duties that in most businesses or government agencies are the responsibilities of paid administrative staff.

Now that the district is considering administrative re-assessment, we strongly urge the commissioners and the administration to look carefully at their use of volunteers and paid staff.

Although Chief Harris may feel that $30,000 is the price one pays to build an interactive, continually updated website, most businesses of similar complexity as the Fire Department manage to provide similar websites at more than half that cost. Any responsible private business would consider bids before paying someone $6500 a month to develop a website.

The fire dept needs an overhaul; call it a strategic plan review if you like. It wouldn’t hurt them to look at the school district board’s functioning in the last year.

Observing the Orcas Island School District Board meeting last week was like seeing a tuned-up machine working smoothly, sometimes throwing the gears into reverse, but getting to their destination with all passengers arriving safely. It was a transparent discussion among directors – consulting their administration and the public, directing the superintendent, and getting things done.

Last year, the school board faced a financial crisis that threatened the way the community educates our children. The district had gotten some $350,000 in debt, gone through three superintendents, made substantial accounting mistakes and experienced a continuing decline in enrollment.

But they did it. They knuckled down and studied obstruse budget formulas, conducted a series of workshops and public budget review meetings to bring themselves and the community up to speed on the budget process, worked with the district administration and staff, OIEF board and the public (even including a stint in the dunk tank for Superintendent Glenn Evans), took on additional duties and meetings, and plowed through public meeting procedures to create a board that’s informed, diverse, reasonable, tough, responsible, while still being compassionate and motivated, with the education of our children their guiding light.

And, not incidentally, before this year’s board started its official business, in January, they had a special board “retreat,” with a non-district facilitator, open to public observation wherein motivation, direction, respect, history and cooperation was emphasized.

The Fire Department would do well, as it deals with realigning its strategic plan to provide professional administrative, policy, training, internet, maintenance, and volunteer support for the department, to engage professional oversight or mediation to put the Commission back on course again.

That would be worth paying top dollar for.