SUTHERLIN — The Fair Oaks fire station has new paint, a new cement floor and a new person in charge. Fire officials hope it all means a fresh start.
“We’re giving the department a face lift, to show people we know what we’re doing. We’re not exactly the fire department they’ve seen in the past few years,” said the new fire chief, Robert Mock.
The department that people have seen has been a troubled one. Fair Oaks, a small department east of Sutherlin, is one of three Douglas County fire districts to be reshaped in the past seven months by citizens revolts.
Like with the Winston-Dillard and Lookingglass fire boards, a majority of the Fair Oaks Fire Board was swept aside by a recall campaign.
Most recently, Lookingglass voters recalled three board members who had backed a novel approach to increasing the fire district’s tax collections. They proposed disbanding the district and in the same election reforming with a higher permanent tax rate. Voters thrashed the proposal in May and weren’t through. Recall organizers accused four board members of being unresponsive to residents. Voters recalled three of the four last month.
In Winston, voters recalled three board members who had vigorously defended themselves against a host of accusations, mostly related to their reactions to a financial crunch and the resulting public scrutiny.
The chief petitioner of the Lookingglass recall, Bob Russell, said he sees a pattern.
“There’s a very interesting dilemma with these rural fire districts. There really is nobody that sits at the state or the county that oversees them. Each of these boards is its own entity, and it is all powerful,” he said.
Russell said he would like to see county commissioners take control of rural fire boards. As it is now, if fire board members shut out the public, the only recourse is recall, he said. “There should be a simpler way to do it,” he said.
Fire districts collectively receive millions of dollars in taxes in the county each year. The county’s 26 fire districts, not counting municipal fire departments, imposed $10.2 million in property taxes in 2011, according to the Douglas County Assessor’s Office.
Winston-Dillard has the highest tax rate — $4.64 per $1,000 assessed valuation — among all county fire districts. Yet, the recall there was driven by disgruntlement with how the board operated, not unhappiness with taxes.
Board member Ron Smithhisler, appointed to fill a vacancy created by the recall election in March, said he didn’t have an opinion about whether a common theme ran through the recall movements, but he said local boards should remain in charge.
The new Winston-Dillard board is working to improve the district’s bookkeeping and to keep the public involved, he said. “It’s just a work in progress.”
Fair Oaks imposed only $95,727 in taxes in 2011. But it received a disproportionate share of attention when three fire board members resigned in April rather than fight a recall. The fire chief, Paul Yegge, also stepped down. The driving force behind the recall was the belief that the board should have fired Yegge in 2010 when a state disciplinary panel refused him a firefighter’s certification. The panel asserted Yegge tried to conceal prior drug convictions.
The district now has a new board, and there’s no mistaking it’s under new management. Every piece of equipment has been inspected in the past month, and almost everything has been cleaned, repaired or replaced.
Mock, 26, still faces the challenge of restocking the department with volunteers, whose numbers dwindled from 25 to two under Yegge’s watch. The number now stands at zero.
Mock, who’s paid $1,000 a month plus health insurance, said he hopes to have at least a handful of volunteers trained and in service by Nov. 1.
A recall leader, Emily Blakely, whose husband, Clyde, is one of the new board members, said Mock has started to rebuild the department.
“My expectations have been met and surpassed. He has lots of energy and good organizational skills, so he’s really moving our district forward,” she said.
Mock said he hopes to win back volunteers and attract new ones by making the firehouse a fun and family friendly environment.
He plans to convert a loft at the station into a day room and an overnight room with beds allowing two firefighters to be on call.
He said he wants to remind volunteers of “the thrill of what the fire service has to offer, that excitement when you get to help somebody out and save the day.”
A Sutherlin High School graduate who spent a year as a firefighter for the city of Roseburg, Mock has a commitment to the area that new board members say makes him a good fit for the job.
At 16 years old, he began a four-year stint volunteering for Fair Oaks that changed the direction of his life.
“This is where I fell in love with fire service and figured out this is what I wanted to do,” Mock said. “I just didn’t want to see it collapse, and it was to that point it would have.”
The Fair Oaks fire station on Nonpareil Road east of Sutherlin will host two barbecues this month, one Thursday for a community open house and one
Oct. 18 for prospective volunteers. Mock said he’s already aware of about 17 people interested in volunteering.
While Mock attempts to win back an entire force of firefighting volunteers, Winston-Dillard has stabilized thanks to the return of half its paid firefighters in August.
Six of its 12-member force had been laid off over the past year. They are back thanks to a $1.4 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Fire Chief Ken McGinnis said the district is doing well.
“I’m anticipating some stability for a couple of years,” he said.
McGinnis said the new fire board decided not to accept a second grant for $567,000 to initiate a volunteer program.
“They felt we had enough on our plate managing what we already have,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lookingglass residents await a decision from Douglas County commissions on who will fill the third position on their fire board, giving it the quorum it needs to conduct business.
Russell said he hopes to be appointed to the board, though the new board will oversee a district in financial crisis. The district’s tax revenue is about $60,000, while its budget for next year is $103,000, he said.
“The very first thing that needs to be done is to bring widespread community involvement,” he said. “Let the community speak as to what they want the organization to be and start there.”
Blakely agreed boards need to be more open to citizen involvement.
“We were met with strong resistance from the (former) board,” she said. “They should not resist you, but it seems ... they want to have their own way.
Blakely said the voters also have to take some responsibility.
“My personal view from my experience here in our fire department is that the citizens do not really engage and involve themselves with the fire department. The citizens need to be going to the fire board meetings regularly. Citizens need to educate themselves on state law. It’s easy for a small fire board to be lax on what the rules are. It’s a board problem, but it’s a citizen problem too.”
• You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-957-4213 or email@example.com.