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GARFIELD -- Members of the Board of Directors for the Northeast Benton County Volunteer Fire Department hosted the first of two Town Hall meetings Monday to explain their request for an increase in fire dues and to answer questions.

Board members are Dean Adair, chairman; Alan Martinkewiz, vice-chairman; Warren Wilkey, treasurer; Floyd Kintzel, secretary; Jon Testut, Wally Ake, Buzz Vitali, Don Berndt and Ann Jeter. Board clerk is Julie Bland.

Appraised value^Annual dues

Current fire dues

$0-99,999^$40

$100,000-299,999^$75

$300,000+^$120

Proposed fire dues

$0-99,999^$84 (23 cents/day)

$100,000-299,999^$154 (42 cents/day)

$300,000+^$244 (67 cents/day)

Number of runs

2018 Fire^182

2018 EMS^648

Fire Chief Rob Taylor presented the rational for the dues increase request saying there had not been an increase in 20 years. He said the fire department is a volunteer department and it has become more difficult to keep volunteers as people still work a 40-hour work week and have children and families involved in multiple activities.

"In order to provide the service and keep improving, we have to put more money into it," Taylor explained to the six people present. He said the increase would allow the department to fund two full-time positions for quicker response time.

Taylor said he plans to use part-time people as well as qualified volunteers to staff those 24-hour shifts.

"We've spent well over a year working on this plan, even with the previous board," Taylor said, adding that he is not considering two full-time employees because of the cost of benefits. "We are slowly becoming a combination department and can use part-time people who are qualified to man the station 24 hours a day. "They may work a 24-hour shift and then not work again for two weeks," he said.

Explaining that the Emergency Medical Service (ambulance) portion of NEBCO is completely separate financially from the fire side, Taylor said that there are times when the EMS staff arrives at a motor-vehicle collision with patients trapped in the vehicle and have to wait for a volunteer firefighter to arrive to extricate the patients. He explained that both the EMS and fire sides are dispatched to wrecks and that it is the fire side that has the equipment and training for extrication.

"How long do you expect us to work off a dues structure set up 20 years ago? It's unrealistic to expect a business to do that," Taylor said, adding that the funds generated by the increase in dues will "help us become a better, safer department."

"It's just a lot different than it was 20 years ago," he said. "As community continues to grow ...there's so much more expected out of the fire department today than there ever has been in the past."

He said NEBCO took over the EMS portion of the department in 2010 and he and his staff have worked extremely hard to keep the service viable. "We're able to staff one ambulance 24 hours a day 365 days a year," Taylor said, and usually able to staff a second ambulance four days a week. "That money is all from EMS dues. There is no fire money used on EMS."

"There is no intermingling of funds whatsoever," Adair said.

One person in the audience asked what the plan was if the voters deny the increase.

"We will continue to operate as we are, but there is no guarantee on response time," Taylor said. "I wish this room was full of people."

He said NEBCO officials guaranteed no price increase on the EMS service for the first three years after taking it over from the Volunteer Ambulance Service (VAS) until they had determined the need and finances. Once it was established what the cost was, there was a dues increase.

"That's really where we are with the fire service," Taylor said. "In order for the fire service being able to provide a service that when you call 911, it assures that you're going to get a quick response.

"There's nothing worse than pulling up on fire scene and there's a person trapped inside or on an accident with people trapped in vehicle," and you can't do anything. "You can have six paramedics, but if you don't have fire service to cut them out, you can't do anything," he said.

"The fact is, we've got a certain amount of volunteers, but they are all work during the day," he said. "Nobody sits around waiting for a fire or a wreck. We've got to be able to start addressing those situations."

Taylor said much of the equipment is aging and needs replacing, a standard established by law and manufacturers, not him. But, he said personnel is essential.

"You can have a million dollar fire truck, but if you don't have personnel, it's not worth anything," he said. "A lot of our equipment is 15 to 20 years old."

"I will continue to work with what we have but I will not endanger personnel. We will do what we can with what we have," Taylor said.

Adair said the board members had spent eight to nine months contemplating different numbers and the numbers being presented to the public are the minimum believed to be able to meet the need.

"We're a very conservative group that doesn't want to spend anybody else's money. This is the bare minimum," Adair said.

Taylor said that the current ISO (Insurance Services Office) rate is 5 and that it was a 9 when he started with NEBCO. He explained that a 10 is the worst and a 1 is the best.

"When we first started all this in the late '90s, we were a class 9 and all that meant was that we had a red firetruck," Taylor said. Now, NEBCO has several fire stations, two fire trucks at each station and a fire boat.

"Going from a 9 to a 5 is a huge savings on your house insurance," Adair said.

"Your water supply is 40% of your grade -- fire hydrants, water lines," Taylor explained.

Treasurer Warren Wilkey said NEBCO received $170,420 in fire dues in 2018 and said much of the funds for the fire department are raised with fund raisers and received from grants.

In answer to a question from the audience, Wilkey said that in 2018, there were 1,340 people that paid the $40 dues, 900 who paid $75 and 411 who paid $120.

Stanley Williams, a resident of the area and former volunteer with NEBCO, questioned why the mayor of Garfield was not at the meeting.

"I talked to the mayor," Williams said. "I don't know why he's not here. He's supposed to be here."

Garfield Mayor Gary Blackburn said Tuesday he was unable attend Monday's meeting but that he is researching the issue and plans to present a documented position at the next town hall meeting. He said he plans to present a "well-reasoned, factual document validating his conclusion." He said he questions that the fire and EMS department budgets are separate.

"I absolutely, positively have been a supporter of NEBCO all along, I just wonder if we're past the point of being a volunteer fire department. I'm looking at the data," Blackburn said. He had two board members at the June 11 City Council to answer questions for the City Council.

"The fact that they are separate, I have reason to question," Blackburn said, commending Wilkey for providing all documents he's requested.

NEBCO covers 84 square miles and includes the property within the city limits of Garfield.

Taylor said that in the past, far too often, firefighters would show up at a scene and a house was half burned down.

"That's just the way it is with volunteerism," Taylor said. "We've come a long way since then and it's my duty as chief to try to be best prepared."

Williams encouraged Taylor to continue to use volunteers. Taylor said he plans to.

The increase will be voted upon in a special election July 9. There is another town hall meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 25 in the NEBCO Community Building, 17823 Marshall St., Garfield.

Editorial on 06/19/2019

Print Headline: Fire dues increase first in 20 years

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