by SENATOR KEVIN RANKER
I’ve had my doubts about the spending practices of our fire department. In fact, until recently, I was quite vocal with my questions and concerns.
Then I did my homework. I have taken time to look at the current situation as opposed to the past. I have found that the fiscal accountability and leadership has improved significantly over the last two years. I now fully support the Orcas Island Fire and Rescue levy.
I am impressed with the recent actions of the commission and chief. Historically, spending was not controlled well. In direct response to this, OIFR has taken great strides to improve fiscal accountability and efficiency. Examples of this include improved purchasing systems with strict approval thresholds, financial policy reform, and internal personnel restructuring to improve service.
I do not believe any of us question the incredible effort OIFR provide for us. We also understand that the emergency services business is 24-7. Often staff and volunteers stay late into the evening to accomplish training and emergency incidents can happen anytime. On occasion, it is important to feed the people who are working or volunteering to maintain the continuity of operations. This is an acceptable use of our tax dollars.
Training dozens of volunteers and several professional staff involves bringing in instructors or sending our people off island and there are legitimate travel expenses associated with this. In direct response to concerns being raised about potential abuses of these expenses, at the March meeting, the commissioners adopted a much stricter travel, meal and reimbursement policy. I believe expenses will be appropriate and strictly scrutinized going forward.
I believe salaries and benefits of our staff are also appropriate and are comparable to similar sized programs. For example, the San Juan EMS Chief, with no fire duties, makes more than our chief and they have a separate fire chief making slightly less than our chief. We have both of these functions in one.
I have also heard questions regarding the amount of the levy itself and if it is necessary, as we do not have the larger capital expenses we had in 1999 when a levy of the same size was passed. I believe it is.
Since 1999, the cost of living has risen. More importantly however, the cost of maintaining our services has risen. Protective equipment that cost $1,100 per person in 1999, now costs $4,000, costs of fuel and other constants have also risen dramatically and mandated requirements for operations, safety, and fiscal practices have grown. Finally, the amount of work has grown as the number of calls has risen 119 percent since 1999.
In the end, the levy renewal will not raise taxes and proposes a budget that is responsible and meets the needs of our community for years to come. Combined with the leadership of Chief O’Brien, we are presented with a proposal that is sensible and deserves our support.
The department has the right mix of career staff and volunteers, who rally to help people and save lives. Now it is time for us to rally for them and support the levy.
State senator Kevin Ranker lives on Orcas Island.