East County Fire & Rescue asks voters to OK $1.275M in bonds

It would purchase two engines, brush truck, generator, well

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian breaking news reporter

Published:

 

Voters in east Clark County this November will decide whether to fund upgrades to facilities and vehicles used by the area's fire agency.

In Proposition No. 1, the East County Fire & Rescue's board of commissioners is asking voters whether or not to spend up to $1.275 million on a 20-year capital improvement bonds.

Specifically, the bonds would fund the purchase of two engines and a brush truck, an emergency generator at Station 94, a water well at Station 92 and a parking lot repair at Station 93. The money would also replace old firefighting and medical equipment, including fire hoses, worn or broken tools, intercom systems and portable radios.

If it passes, taxes to the estimated 9,589 residents will increase 9 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value for 20 years. This translates into $21.86 per year for a property with an assessed valued of $242,927, the average for the taxing district.

Survey results

A survey sent out by the fire district in July had favorable results. Sixty-six people responded to the questionnaire, which was posted on the agency's website and sent out by mail with its July newsletter. Of those responses, 38, or 57.6 percent, were in favor of supporting the entire bond amount and 26, or 39.4 percent, did not support any type of bond effort. Two respondents supported a smaller bond effort of $1,130,112.

Whether to even send the issue to voters revealed a divide on the board of commissioners. The bond effort was narrowly approved on July 16 in a 3-to-2 vote.

The biggest point of contention over the bonds is vehicle replacement -- which makes up the largest chunk of the bonds.

A committee points to the agency's downward budget trend, with the fire agency losing 30 percent of its budget over the past four years. Maintenance costs for the aging vehicles continues to increase significantly, according to the committee.

Fire Chief Scott Koehler said that two engines, one 20 years old and the other 18 years old, have racked up $7,000 in maintenance costs over the past three years. The average maintenance cost for a newer engine, he said, tops out at $800 a year.

Gary Larson, the fire commissioner who chairs the committee, said that the most important reason for the upgrade is to maintain reliable emergency response to the citizens in the fire district.

"If one of those engines broke down, it's out of service and could impact response time to bring an engine from another station," he said. "The bond is the minimum needed to continue to provide a reliable level of service to residents."

In a newsletter to residents, Koehler describes the apparatuses that would be replaced as having significant maintenance issues and being outdated -- Koehler told commissioners at the June meeting that the Washington Surveying and Rating Bureau recently announced upcoming changes to its recommended age of vehicle life from 20 years to 15 years.

"The bottom line is, we need to replace the equipment," Larson said. "It's costing us more money to maintain, which is not the direction we want to go. "

Effort questioned

Those who oppose the capital bond project, however, question whether replacing the vehicles is necessary.

"A certified mechanic does regular maintenance, and there are no safety concerns," said Commissioner Martha Martin, who helped write the statement against the issue. The vehicles are dependable and have fairly low mileage, Martin said, with the highest mileage being 50,000 miles.

The entire process to get the bond effort on the November ballot was a rushed one, Martin said. The issue came to the commission in mid-June and was voted on a month later.

"The critical point is, I don't think we need to do it now," Martin said. She said in their current condition, the vehicles have a 3 to 6 year window for when they need to be replaced.

"The ECFR needs to have a capital replacement plan that does not include a bond every few years," she said. "With more time, we can do a better process of due diligence."

Chief Koehler said that he is glad that the question is being put to the voters.

"If people vote no, we'll run the trucks until they quit. … All we can do is ask what the taxpayers want to do," he said. "It's too important a decision not to ask."