Hermiston and Stanfield fire district board members are planning their next steps after ballot measures to consolidate the districts failed.
At the Hermiston Fire District Board of Directors meeting Wednesday, Chief Scott Stanton said the department is already collecting election data and creating a survey to ascertain why the district reformation failed.
“I think that it is critical for both boards to look at that data and see where we sit and where some of the issues were, and then we can make a decision on where to go from there,” he said. “We need to find out what people are thinking.”
He recommended waiting at least 12 to 18 months before putting the measures before voters again.
“I still believe, for long-term efficiency, this is the way to go,” he said.
The one-year intergovernmental agreement between the Hermiston and Stanfield fire districts that named Stanton as the chief of both remains in effect through June 2015, but Stanton said the boards would need to decide by January whether or not to renew the agreement another year.
The IGA also named former Stanfield Fire Chief Jim Whelan as the training officer and volunteer coordinator for both districts and replaced his 40-hour work week in Stanfield by stationing a Hermiston paramedic firefighter there during the week.
Both Hermiston and Stanfield fire officials said the IGA is beneficial. Stanton said Whelan’s position is helpful to the Hermiston department. Assistant Stanfield Fire Chief Eldon Marcum said the agreement “is working really well.”
“I’m seeing a lot of positives come out of it, especially having a paramedic firefighter stationed in Stanfield 40 hours a week,” he said. “The public is enjoying that fact.”
Marcum, who is also the Stanfield Fire District Board of Directors vice chairman, said his board met Monday and wants to continue to discuss future reformation efforts with the Hermiston board.
He said he believes voter confusion contributed to the consolidation failure.
Stanfield voters narrowly approved the dissolution of their fire district, but Marcum said it should have been approved overwhelmingly.
“If people understood the whole thing, I think it was really a no-brainer for Stanfield,” he said. “It was a win-win for us. I think (voters) were afraid that if they voted yes for the dissolution of our district and then the reformation didn’t pass, they would be out of a fire district — that they wouldn’t have a fire department anymore.”
Stanton said, from what he has heard so far, many people were confused about needing to dissolve both districts and reform them into the new Umatilla County Fire District No. 1. He said some people thought Hermiston would lose its fire department, and others thought the name indicated the county would assume responsibility for fire protection.
Marcum said voters should have been better educated, especially on the fact that both dissolution measures and the reformation measure had to be approved for any changes to occur. He said he attended an Oregon Fire Service conference session that stressed the importance of communication when passing ballot measures.
“We need to really start over on our advertising,” he said. “I think we failed in communicating the total deal and the way the taxes are going to work to the public. It’s not for lack of effort, but evidently, we didn’t go about it in the right direction.”
Hermiston Fire District Board of Directors Chairman Ric Sherman agreed that the effects of the consolidation effort were not well communicated to the voters.
“There was a lot of miscommunication and a lot of misunderstanding about the situation,” he said. “The ballot measures were very difficult to understand, mainly because of some of the requirements that the state of Oregon puts on such things. People would have to vote to disband their current fire district and then vote to form the new fire district.”
Sherman said he also understands that an 80 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value increase for rural Hermiston fire district residents was significant. That level of increase, however, was necessary to ensure enough funding for the district for the next 15 or 20 years, he said.
“I’m not being negative to the people who live here, but they’ve been spoiled because they’ve had such good fire service and ambulance coverage in both districts for so long,” he said. “You can look at other places in the state, and they don’t have near the coverage, (and) they don’t have near the quality of people or the quality of personal equipment and apparatus to use.”
Sherman said the department maintains its equipment well, but even if it looks fine, certain items must be replaced for firefighter safety.
“We do not have the luxury of being in the middle of a bad fire situation and having a truck break down, either for putting out the fire or for the safety of our people,” he said. “We cannot go out and ask our people in either fire district to put their lives on the line by using substandard equipment. It’s a dangerous enough job as it is.”
Without additional funding, Sherman said the department would be forced to reduce its personnel in a couple years, which would likely cause delays in fire and ambulance response times. He said it would be “horrible” for the firefighters laid off and “dangerous” for the community, but there are no other options.
“The fire districts belong to the people,” Sherman said. “We put something before the people, and they said no. Maybe it’s because we didn’t do a good enough job explaining things, but the point is that’s what the people said, and that’s what we are going to have to work with until something changes. We have to go out and do the best we can on the situation that they have decided upon.”