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Outcry, and a letter, result as council considers making fire agency all-volunteer

June 4, 2011

CASCADE LOCKS — The future of the paid fire chief position will be city council's primary item of business when it meets June 13, resuming a meeting continued from last month.

Council will receive a letter from nearly 80 Cascade Locks residents asking it to "Keep Our Chief" after council last month began consideration of doing away with the paid chief position.

"They're just not listening," said Martha LaMont, who along with Helen Tiffin of Cascade Locks distributed the letter last week, and provided a copy to the Hood River News.

The city is considering turning the fire department into an all-volunteer operation, a plan that several experienced firefighters, including Chief Jeff Pricher, said was unworkable and probably dangerous, citing the need for adequate training, record keeping, supervision and emergency response coordination.

"If you've got a problem with the current fire chief, deal with those problems; but doing away with the paid position is a bad idea," longtime volunteer Jess Zerfing told the council May 27.

Volunteer Jess Matthews said, "We have an extremely valuable resource in Chief Pricher. He is our lifeline leader, who keeps us safe in inherently dangerous situations."

The city is looking for ways to reduce its general fund by about $75,000 a year. Pricher's annual salary and benefits total $86,000.

In the May 27 meeting, 15 citizens spoke in support of continuing the paid position, while two spoke in support of doing away with the position.

"The position is not necessary," said Randy Mislick of Cascade Locks. "You have a city administrator; have him take on administrative oversight of the department."

"It's a tough situation for the whole community," Mayor George Fischer said. "But we have a responsibility to keep the city solvent. The council must look at all the issues to keep everything covered, including our water and sewer and streets." By voter resolution passed two years ago, the city cannot raise fees.

The council took up the matter of creation of a volunteer fire chief position, an agenda item which was not accompanied by a report or other explanatory document. Two council members, Lance Masters and Eva Zerfing, said they had not known about the proposal until the previous Friday, when a revised agenda was issued.

Zerfing, who has served as a volunteer firefighter, said she was "blindsided; not even a whisper" about the proposal.

"I think in this litigious society we're in, knowing what the fire chief has to do, there is no way we should rely on someone who has no idea what needs to be done. It is inconceivable for me - and a lot of people. I know you know it's a hot item, and it is for good reason."

The volunteer chief idea received lengthy airing that night, between public testimony and council discussion - both heated at times.

"You struck a raw nerve with this," resident Mark Hansen said. 'This is a bad damn idea."

Rob Brostoff brought up other personnel matters including the departure of Bernard Seeger, former city administrator in January.

"For a long time now I have watched the demonization of our public employees," Brostoff said.

Seeger, who lives in Cascade Locks, told the council that Pricher has given the fire department solid leadership and quadrupled the amount of grant revenue for the agency since 2005 when he was hired.

Council took no action and continued the meeting to June 13, scheduled for 7 p.m. at City Hall.

LaMont said Thursday, "They've got a lot of angry citizens who want to preserve their fire department."

The letter reads, in part, "Cascade Locks is fortunate to have both a locally and nationally recognized fire chief, very experienced in disaster response," and asks that the council "Please fully fund Cascade Locks paid fire chief position and do not alter funds for our emergency services department."

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