Karen Meier

Karen Meier

In May of 2014, Sutherlin residents voted 2-to-1 not to annex into the Douglas County Fire District No. 2. They simply did not want to pay the taxes.

Ten fire personnel with about 250 years of combined fire experience subsequently put together ten different scenarios for Sutherlin, ranging from a completely volunteer department to a completely paid department. Considering what Sutherlin could afford, a hybrid fire-only department that consisted of a paid chief, assistant chief and volunteers was determined to be the best option. By law, volunteer firefighters are trained to the same level as professional/paid firefighters.

The city hired Rich LaBelle as Interim Fire Chief in 2014. LaBelle retired from Albany as battalion chief in 2006 after 25 years of service. He then worked half-time with another retired administrator in Scio. Unlike Albany’s paid department, Scio was an all volunteer department.

Gene Fisher was then hired as training officer. Fisher’s credentials include being named Instructor of the Year in 2003 by the Oregon Fire Instruction Association.

The two put together the fire-only department and took over the operation of fire services July 1, 2015. A chief and assistant chief started later that month. Actual operating costs for the department were about $500,000 that first year, after subtracting out one-time non-recurring costs.

With their work done, LaBelle and Fisher left. Staff hired two more full-time employees. They also trained public works employees and some non-union management employees as firefighters. These receive a 15 percent incentive pay increase, are trained during normal working hours and receive a minimum 4-hours overtime for being called out during non-working hours. These plan changes resulted in a 56 percent increase in the 2017-18 fiscal year’s payroll costs over the 2016-17 fiscal year costs.

The proposed budget for next year, 2018-19, again increases payroll costs by 48 percent over 2017-18, or $267,000, and includes hiring two additional paid employees in the department and cross training three additional city employees.

The bottom line is that the city is now proposing escalating payroll costs from $259,000 in the first year of the department to $824,000 the next budget year — a massive $565,000 increase in 4 years.

When a fire alarm goes out for a Sutherlin fire, Oakland and Fair Oaks are automatically tapped at the same time. It is called auto aid. There are 48 volunteers between these three agencies. If the fire is bigger than what these three agencies can handle, more nearby departments are tapped. This is called mutual aid.

Staff, in an attempt to legitimize their attempt to bypass the vote of the citizens, hired a facilitator to conduct meetings with hand-picked members of a committee, ostensibly to assess and recommend the path going forward for the fire department. The meetings were intended to be held in private, but were forced by a citizen to be public. The public meetings provided the opportunity for input from experienced and knowledgeable individuals with opinions counter to staff’s agenda, forcing them to cancel additional public meetings and continue their agenda in private, in violation of Oregon meeting law.

Because the committee members have no fire experience and were not involved when the department was developed, they were predestined to rely on what was presented to them by the facilitator.

Attending the public meetings, I realized that much of the cost information put forth was false.

The council will hear only one option for the future of the fire department, and that is the option that staff determined to be their choice. Thousands of dollars were spent to legitimize the predetermined outcome so staff can point to an “independent” committee to support their position, while dismissing the advice of 10 fire personnel with 250 years of experience.

There were four structure fires last year. The public works employees, currently costing about $140,000 per year, have not been called to a fire in 10 months. They have not been needed.

Why, with 48 volunteers available through auto aid, do we need this additional expense? What has prompted this need to change the department? Because we have auto and mutual aid; because we have our own volunteers; because we have so few fires; because we have no complaints concerning the department’s ability to properly manage fires currently, what possible reason is there to change?

The current proposed budget for fire services is $1.2 million. In 2009, when the Sutherlin Fire Department was forced to close its doors because of costs, their budget was $1.3 million. We are dangerously close to shutting the doors again on our department.

This year’s bloated fire budget is largely responsible for drawing down our beginning cash balance by $463,000, or 24 percent. The city cannot afford this.

Or is that part of the plan?

There will be a public hearing on the fire/budget May 14 at 7 p.m.

Karen Meier retired to Sutherlin in 2005. She served on the Sutherlin Budget Committee from 2009-2016 and as a Sutherlin city councilor from 2013-2017.

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