County asked to ignite stalled fire service talks

Hood River and West Side fire stalemated over annexation finance issues

Hood River County has been asked to intervene in a stalemate over annexation talks between West Side Fire District and the City of Hood River.

The fire district’s board of directors has asked the county to take its mediation role under Oregon law and call both parties to the bargaining table. In turn, the county has requested via a letter sent on Tuesday that both public agencies submit a schedule for when the groups can meet.

At issue is how to provide for a smooth transfer of services that does not harm West Side’s financial ability to provide property protection.

“We are not opposed to annexation that takes place under state statutes so that the interests of the public are first and foremost,” said Fire Marshal Jim Trammell.

He said the special district is confused about what appears to be a “breakdown” in negotiations — especially since the agency has agreed to virtually every condition proposed by the city.

But Mayor Paul Cummings said the municipality is very willing to continue discussions and has become more hopeful about a resolution with Westside’s latest offer.

“Staff will be presenting updated information to the council on Monday and we’re looking forward to reaching a consensus on these issues,” Cummings said.

The end to almost a year of negotiations could be just around the corner, said Trammell, since West Side has dropped its recommendation for binding arbitration if difficulties arise in drafting a permanent agreement or an extension of the three-year interim funding proposal.

“We just need to get an agreement down on paper,” Trammell said.

Until that happens he said both the city and fire district are being forced to spend taxpayer dollars in defense of a case before the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals. West Side filed the action in protest over the city’s annexation of the strip of Interstate 84 along Country Club Road earlier this year. The fire district believes that annexation failed to uphold state law because no co-operative agreement was in place before it was enacted, which has created a jurisdictional overlap. The fire district has offered to drop its legal challenge once a temporary agreement is in place.

Trammell said West Side has a fiscal responsibility to the 2,500-3,000 taxable lots it serves in over 25 square miles and to the 58 volunteers who make up the department. A past sticking point in negotiations to date has been the city request that the interim contract expire in three years. That action would take place automatically unless a permanent model had been adopted or both parties had agreed to extend the terms.

City officials contended it would be unfair to allow the district to collect its maximum allowable 78 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation on properties beyond the three-year period — especially when it was no longer providing services.

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