EDITORIAL – Taxpayers, tradeoffs and growing pains

The Orcas Island Fire District is not a democracy. It is a junior taxing district. The volunteer members of the Fire Department don’t vote, they serve.

The Fire Department is directed by the Chief Mike Harris, who reports to a three-member commission, elected by the public for six-year terms. In the 2007 election of Commissioner Jim Coffin, he ran unopposed, as did Commissioner Harvey Olsan in 2005.

The commissioners hire the fire chief and approve his budget, in fulfillment of the district’s stated mission: “To achieve the highest level of protection to the lives and property of the community residents and visitors through Fire Prevention, Fire Suppression, Medical Rescue and Public Education consistent with the prudent use of public funds.”

In 1999, voters approved the Fire Department’s request to put the EMS and Fire levies together and add money for a period of 15 years to tax themselves $1.35 per $1,000 of their properties’ value in a combined EMS and firefighting levy. They were told that the purpose of the levy was to increase benefits to volunteers, deal with facilities and apparatus and to provide more benefits and training, facilities and equipment.

The department’s operations budget, which this year is close to $1,600,000 does not run at a deficit. Harris recently recalled that the department’s strategic plan, finalized in 2005 after eight months of community input during Harris’ first year as Chief, called for updates of fire fighting equipment and fire stations, installation of fulltime firefighters/paramedics, cross-training of all volunteers so that they serve both as firefighters and Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), reports to the community and improvements in intra-department communications.

In the process of realizing the strategic plan goal of cross-training, the status of department volunteers who had trained only as EMTs or only as firefighters was “grandfathered” in. They can continue to serve in their separate disciplines, but all new recruits must serve both as EMT and firefighter, as with most “modern” fire departments.

In 2008, this is not your grandfathers’ fire department. It has grown to purchase the most advanced equipment and provide for future buildout. Three paramedics provide 24/7 coverage from the Eastsound Fire Station. While not providing medical insurance to its volunteers, the department has instigated medical reimbursements of $100 to $200 per month, and health benefits for the volunteers, and increased their stipend from $9 to $10 per call.

As the county government works to bring Eastsound into GMA compliance and a 21st-century urban “village” must be planned, so the Fire Department commissioners have fulfilled much of their strategic plan, and the result is a Fire Department that is professional, expensive, and Eastsound-centered – and one whose growth the community may not be able to build in coming years.

While we may feel that the Commissioners should work on the “communication” goals of their strategic plan, both with the public – “to provide the highest amount of public opportunity to interact with the government,” in the words of former department paramedic Mike Damoth in 2004 – and within the department, it is up to the public to involve themselves in the policies and expenditures of the Fire District.

In the past five months, at each public Fire Commission meeting, there was usually no one in attendance from the non-department public, and on several occasions, only one member of the public in attendance – that person being a spouse, or a former Fire Commissioner.

Maybe it’s like locking the barn after the horse is stolen, but perhaps the public should attend more of these meetings to learn the direction the department is taking under its Chief and Commissioners, and to communicate their opinions. It is a two-way street.

And if the public is still unhappy with the direction the Commission is taking, they can run for the Commissioners’ seats as their terms expire, and vote them out of office.