Not happy with direction the fire district is headed
February 27, 2012 · Updated 4:47 PM
Editor’s note: the following letter was written before the fire district announced it would not be seeking a levy increase this spring.
Our local fire district recently took out a two-page ad in The Enumclaw Courier-Herald. I was surprised to find out Fire District 28 is planning on asking for multiple, long-term tax increases to build a new costly fire station and pay for expanding operating costs.
I attended a public open house meeting on Jan. 30, 2012, where Fire Chief Clow and district fire commissioners attempted to justify a big new firehouse and large increases in property taxes. I didn’t come away convinced and I continue to research these matters. I have found out a few things that I would like to share.
Enumclaw has not grown much in 10 years and is not expected to grow much in the next 10 years. The current fire station has seven bays and the Enumclaw station has two fire trucks. The current fire station facility works well and existing problems discussed in the public meeting are minor and easily fixed.
It is interesting to note that the fire district purchased property in October of 2011 on which to build an expensive new fire station. They appear to have purchased the property in haste and before voter approval of a new costly fire station. The property purchased is ill suited for a fire station because it is 75 percent wetlands. The fire district paid $495,000 of our tax dollars for the property. The property is currently assessed at $55,000 and was previously purchased at the height of the real estate boom in 2005 for $265,000. Fire Chief Clow and the fire commissioners claim to have been unaware that the property contained wetlands.
Expanding fire district costs include Fire Chief Clow’s recent $40,000 annual pay increase. Fire Chief Clow now makes $11,000 per month. In addition, Fire Chief Clow receives a $1,900 monthly medical-dental package and a $2,127 monthly pension package. As of a few weeks ago, the total tax dollars to support Fire Chief Clow is $180,324 per year, not including the free use of a fire district vehicle.
The fire district doesn’t need to raise property taxes. It currently collects more funds than needed for operating expenses. A $2 million slush fund of property taxes has accumulated and has been used for numerous discretionary purchases, including the imprudent purchase of land for a new expensive fire station. Full accounting of the tax dollars included in this slush fund has been withheld from public scrutiny.
Regarding increasing property taxes, Fire Chief Clow was heard saying at the open house I attended: “If I could ask for $4 per $1,000, I would, but I can’t.” If left unchecked, Fire Chief Clow would collect $1,600 per year in fire taxes alone for a $400,000 Plateau property.
A new expensive fire station is a bad idea. Buying property for an unapproved fire station without an adequate feasibility study is a reckless use of public funds. Expanding fire district day-to-day operating costs in the height of a recession is foolish and insensitive. It is irresponsible of the fire district to award a $40,000 annual pay increase to a public employee in these hard economic times.
Fire Chief Clow is financially insulated from hard economic times. However, many of our Plateau residents are not. Fixed income retirees are feeling the pinch of higher living costs. Many of our neighbors are out of work or working longer hours for fewer dollars. You don’t have too look far to see how responsible public entities are handling hard economic times. Enumclaw city workers have been laid off and the remainder forgone cost-of-living raises in the face of trimmed operating budgets. Most everyone in this community is making do with less income.
The public needs to restore confidence in, and control of, an out-of-control fire district that spends public tax dollars like there is no tomorrow. The fire district needs to be restructured for effective oversight and the cronyism needs to be stopped. I think it would be wise for our Enumclaw fire chief to refuse his recent $40,000 publicly-financed pay raise. Barring that, perhaps he and the fire district board of commissioners should be fired for gross insensitivity to the needs of community, rampant cronyism and financial mismanagement.