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CL Council takes heat over fire budget

June 15, 2011

Fire Chief Jeff Pricher has cut his own salary by nearly one-third and on Monday called on City Council to put "to a vote of the people" a funding base for the Cascade Locks emergency services budget.

The council appeared prepared to pursue budget cuts that pare Pricher's $52,000 salary down to $32,000, which Pricher proposed under a balanced emergency service budget. The budget committee meets again Wednesday; the meeting is public but no comments will be accepted.

Citizens called for a town hall meeting on a budget fix for the fire department, but no decision was made.

Council decided by consensus Monday to instruct staff to check on the cost of conducting an election and of holding a town hall meeting, according to Kathy Woosley, city recorder.

The city is requiring Pricher to cut another $60,000 from the emergency services budget, but Pricher said the only places to cut are personnel.

"Emergency services are constantly fighting an uphill battle during the budget process since we do not have a dedicated revenue source like city lights or streets or water," Pricher said in a June 8 memorandum to Mayor George Fischer, the council and the budget committee.

Council Member Tom Cramblett on Monday pointed to the deficit budgets of the emergency services department in the past four years, and said a major change is needed.

"We should go back to a volunteer department. Yours is a small town, folks. One person is not going to save you," Cramblett said.

"It's up to us to learn as much as we can through our chief or learn as a community all the things we can do to protect itself. You cannot afford what the fire department staff wants to run this thing. It's a financial issue, bottom line," Cramblett said. "My biggest issue is not if we have a person who knows how to fight a fire or lead people. We've got a person who can't manage money."

Mayor George Fischer said he and council have taken an oath to uphold the laws and policies of the city, as well as its charter, which require a balanced budget.

"It is our obligation to not put blinders on when we know we have financial problems," he said. "We have a legal obligation to be responsible."

But council member Lance Masters countered, "We have a moral obligation to provide safety to the community.

"You cannot run a fire department on a half-time salary," Masters said.

Following the comments of citizens, Masters said, "It has been made clear by the people who have spoken that safety is a high priority."

A dozen citizens spoke Monday in support of maintaining Pricher's pay and keeping emergency services at existing levels.

They included former mayor Ralph Hesgard, who minced no words, saying, "This is a disaster. The way you are treating (Pricher) is a disaster. This is sad."

Shawna Hansel read a letter headed "Keep Our Chief," and signed by 110 Cascade Locks citizens.

"I can't believe this is the best way to cut (the budget)," said citizen Gail Lewis.

Citizen Steve Morris said, "The need for an adequate, competent fire service is so crucial."

Morris cited how Pricher and his department rushed to his aid in 2006 when he had a heart attack.

"If not for their rapid response, I would not have made it," Morris said.

The "Keep Our Chief" letter notes that Pricher has brought in more than $1 million in grants, brought in new equipment and developed the only mass-casualty equipment in the Gorge."

Pricher said after Monday's meeting that revenue to his department is down because council strictly limits his schedule to 40 hours per week, meaning medical calls and other responses that could bring in revenue must be referred to other departments with professional emergency services personnel coordinating the service in the field.

"This budget deficit is nothing new," Pricher said Monday. "It has been here a long, long time." Interviewed after the meeting, he stated that "council has known about the problem and done nothing."

Interim City Administrator Rich Carson, who also does work consulting with small jurisdictions and organizations on operational organization, recommended the council consider paying for a study of city emergency services, what level the city should provide and how to organize and pay for them.

"I think it would be very productive," Carson said of the study, which would take about a month and cost $7,000-$10,000. (His company would not bid on such a project, to avoid any conflict of interest, Carson said.)

Carson offered to put together a request for proposal for professional firms, and see what the interest would be. The provider would spend time talking to city staff, council and other professionals in the area and present the report to the community.

"Once we looked at them (services) then we can take the study to a town hall to see what (residents) want and the things they'd like the city to provide."

After Carson made his proposal, Mayor George Fischer opened the floor to people's ideas on options regarding the fire department.

Masters said that with the proposed budget cuts, any study would be "moot."

"I don't see any point in studying a department that's had its budget slashed, that as an organization has completely disintegrated."

Suggestions included:

A $2 or $3 monthly utility bill surcharge to pay for fire services.

Dedicating 90 percent of transient room tax revenue to fire services.

Exploring a "fire authority" arrangement with neighboring fire districts.

Pricher said "stable fire funding" had been a council goal as recently as five years ago, but is no longer.

He suggested creating an independent fire district or a fire service district that would have city oversight.

"You need a vote of the people," he said, adding that a levy could have a three- or five-year period.

Gail Lewis told council, "You can be vindictive or you can be creative.

"Be creative. Fund the fire department for a year, and give the community a chance to figure out a way to subsidize the fire and ambulance services," Lewis said. "It could be a levy or a bond, or some combination."

(Pricher later clarified that a bond could be used only for construction or land or equipment purchase, and not for operations and salary.)

But it was Lewis who, at Monday's meeting, first broached the idea of a citizen-funded recall of any council members who vote for cutting the emergency services budget. Lewis, who ran unsuccessfully for council in 2010, said he would put up $500 for promoting an effort to find new funding for the department, and then added, "I am just as willing to put $500 into a recall motion for those who called for these cuts to be made."

Four other citizens made the same pledge of $500 for a recall effort.

Mark Keller, who said he works in resort development, said "a professional fire service is the difference between a go and a no-go for people who are considering Cascade Locks for resort development.

"There is lots of interest in this spectacular location," Keller said. "But without the professional fire service you couldn't get the interest you'd need (for resort development)," he said.

Citizen Laurie Madrigal said, "We need a fire chief who can help promote and secure business in our community so that we can have a place that draws people in. This is really huge for bringing both people and businesses in."

But her concerns are over safety, too. Madrigal pointed to the high use of KOA campground, on Forest Lane, and the number of visitors lighting fires, often unregulated, in a high-risk area.

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