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Sparks fly when fire commissioners host open house
Local fire commissioners sought to provide an open forum for citizens worried about management of Enumclaw/District 28 by hosting a town hall meeting Thursday. However, attendance was limited to just three citizens outside the firefighter community.
The open house was an hours-long roundabout of topics ranging from the need for a new fire station, said station's location, Fire Chief Joe Clow's salary and the quality of the commission's representation.
Little new information came from each additional pass other than to establish that the speaker was capable of raising his voice a touch more.
Early in the meeting, Clow found himself defending a partial quote contained in an interview with local news website Patch.
"I'm not a municipal fire chief, I'm a district fire chief – which is a little bit different," Clow said in that interview. "So I did realize my goal of not getting back into municipal government."
Qualls and Ted DeVol said the quote betrayed a lack of interest in the city.
Clow disagreed and said the quote was being taken out of the context of a larger explanation of his career. He had taken a job as Enumclaw fire chief after nearly 30 years in municipal firefighting.
"My issue with municipal government is it's very narrow-minded as far as planning for the future goes," Clow said to Qualls and DeVol. "All my (experience) leads to a need for long-term planning."
Commissioner Ryan Terhune said a problem with Enumclaw's municipal system – before city voters approved annexation into District 28 – was that it was still partially funded by district taxpayers, but without any district accountability.
"The district was funding 50 percent of the station's fire budget, but the district didn't have any say in the operation of the station," Terhune said. He said the city's attitude was, "'Thanks for the check, now get out.'"
Commissioner David Hannity said the operation of the station was not sustainable under city management.
"(The city) could not fund the fire station like they wanted, and they knew it," he said.DeVol complained of the fire chief's salary jumping significantly soon after annexation of the city into the district.
"All we know is, the chief was hired one year as a city fire chief, and the next year he's a district fire chief and he's making $40,000 more a year," DeVol said.
DeVol made that point several times during the course of the evening and was met with the same explanation each time: the raise was merit-based and not the result of any secret arrangement.
"The chief got that raise because he deserved it for his management of the station," Hannity said.
Terhune said Clow's salary needs to be compared with that of other fire chiefs to be appreciated.
"If you're going to compare, compare apples to apples," Terhune said. "Fire chiefs in neighboring districts still make more than our chief does. If you go to Bonney Lake or Maple Valley, they will have a city chief, deputy chief, assistant chief and chief of operations all doing the job Joe is doing here."
The fire station
Another point of contention was whether the fire district will build a new station at a cost of $5 million and where the station would be located.
"I look around at this building and there's nothing wrong with it," DeVol said. "Have you been to the Buckley fire station? I could see them needing a new fire station, but this place is in good shape, in comparison. Why spend $5 million if you don't need to?"The short answer from the commissioners was that the district isn't spending $5 million on a fire station.
"As was said in the last meeting, I don't foresee anything (in regards to construction) in the next five years," Terhune said. "If you look at the strategic plan, the strategic plan says something different. It planned for a fire station in that time period, but looking at the need and what we can do, I don't think we're going to see a new station soon."
The fire district last year paid $495,000 for acreage on Roosevelt Avenue, on the western edge of Enumclaw. But that purchase was made for future planning purposes, Terhune said.
"The strategic plan and future plan all have to do with future changes," Clow added. "If the economy doesn't improve (the fire station) is never going to go up fast.
"What I'm trying to say is that, under the plan, we might specify that under ideal conditions we would hire this number of people at this time, but circumstances change."
When confronted with a question whether a new fire station on the edge of the city would be ideal for reaching city fires, the commissioners and chief indicated a map of the district and showed that the location was chosen for its overall, superior access to the district.
"I think one of the biggest problems we have from a taxpayer standpoint, when it comes time to negotiate firefighter contracts, we have three commissioners who are fire professionals on one side and the firefighter unions on the other," Qualls said. "That looks bad."
"A lot of this stuff you're talking about is stuff we don't control," Terhune responded, citing factors like rising insurance premiums and federal laws requiring four responders in order to enter a burning building; in effect, requiring at least four firefighters on the clock at all times.
Qualls stepped to a whiteboard to offer some ideas for cutting costs. One suggestion was that Enumclaw/King County emulate Buckley/Pierce County in using private medical company AMR for ambulance and paramedic services.
Finally, Qualls reached his climactic point: "I look at this district map that includes Enumclaw, and I see three commissioners that live outside Enumclaw," Qualls said. "And my conclusion is that this isn't working."
The commissioners stared at him for a moment.
"What's not working?" Terhune asked.
"Um, this," Qualls said. "This here. You."
"We just had an election," Terhune said, pointing out that an Enumclaw citizen could have run for a commission position. "Anyone in the district could have run."
DeVol suggested an altered legislative body consisting of fire professionals, city officials and private citizens.
"What you're describing is illegal," Terhune said. "You can't have a (publicly) elected group that restricts qualifications to certain professions."
Terhune went on to criticize Qualls for the "JV move" of making allegations against the fire district in a letter to The Courier-Herald, with allegedly incomplete information and without asking the fire chief face-to-face about the issues in question.
"If my letter was so 'junior varsity,' how come I have people coming into my office to thank me for it?" Qualls said.
"Where are they Mike?" Terhune said. "Because I don't see them here. I only see you here.""There's no representation in the city," Qualls said.
"And, again, we put it up to a vote," Terhune replied. "If, in the next election, you want to put someone up against me to take the job, you're more than welcome. I would prefer to be at home and spend time with my family.
"But you're trying to say the commissioners only represent the county's interests, and that's not true."
The conversation simmered down, and all parties eventually apologized to one another for their outbursts.
"To me, it doesn't matter if you're on Porter (Street) or out in the gorge, this fire station serves you," Clow said, closing out the night. "Regardless of what happens with any kind of levy vote, this kind of public involvement is what's important."