Despite turmoil, Orcas fire commission adopts levy resolution for April ballot - Salish Current
February 23, 2024
Despite turmoil, Orcas fire commission adopts levy resolution for April ballot
Minor Lile

Orcas Island Fire and Rescue volunteers brought concerns about respect, trust and communication to the fire commission board, as commissioners moved forward with a levy proposal for an April vote and evaluation of the fire chief’s contract; an Orcas firefighter works in smoke to extinguish a structure fire. (OIFR)

February 23, 2024
Despite turmoil, Orcas fire commission adopts levy resolution for April ballot
Minor Lile

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Orcas Island fire district commissioners unanimously voted this week to place a levy proposal on the local April 23 special election ballot.

The Feb. 20 vote on the levy measure follows months of turmoil which included two defeated levy measures, election of three new commissioners, a pending review of the fire chief’s contract and a statement of no-confidence in the newly elected commissioners by volunteer firefighters.

The proposed measure would provide for an initial levy lift of $0.77 per $1,000 of the assessed property value, be authorized for five years and raise an estimated $3.5 million in 2025 if based on 2023 assessed property values. 

The levies that were defeated in 2023 had called for a lift of $1.06 per $1,000 valuation and would have been permanent. The levy that expires at the end of the year is at $0.53 per $1,000 valuation and has resulted in a gradual deterioration in service in recent years.

The proposed measure provides only for operational expenditures. The commission has discussed bringing another measure to the ballot this August to fund the fire district’s capital expenses.

The adoption of the levy resolution followed a Feb. 3 town hall meeting attended in-person or online by approximately 100 people.

Calculating a 2025 budget

Prior to the town hall, the commission had received a report prepared by Emergency Services Consulting International and Chief Holly vanSchaick. The report provided a draft baseline budget for 2025 operations and included additional options for the commissioners and community members to consider. 

The $3.5 million that the proposed levy would raise is slightly less than the expenditures proposed in the draft 2025 budget. The commission identified an anticipated year-end operating reserve of approximately $1.5 million and the likelihood that assessed property values in 2024 will be slightly higher than their 2023 levels as factors that should provide sufficient funds to meet the budget that is eventually adopted. 

“The levy amount that is being proposed is a sensible amount that is decidedly less than what was (proposed last year),” said commissioner Randy Gaylord. “Yet it will be enough to cover the cost of maintaining the level of service that the public is asking for.”

Commission chair Brian Ehrmantraut expressed his appreciation to the district’s legal counsel, staff and administration, and to the people who attended the town hall and others who spoke privately to get the job done.

“Establishing the basis for funding the district is the primary responsibility of the commissioners,” vanSchaick said. “It’s my job to work within the parameters they’ve established and that’s what I intend to do.”

Chief’s contract review

The commission also discussed on Feb. 20 a review by Seattle-based Pacifica Law Group of vanSchaick’s contract. The review had been authorized by a 3–2 vote at the commission’s Feb. 5 meeting. 

Pacifica’s report had been delivered to the commissioners nearly two weeks ago, but its contents had not yet been shared with vanSchaick or the public. At a Feb. 8 special meeting, the commissioners agreed to meet with the Pacifica attorneys and the fire district’s regular legal counsel to discuss the Pacifica report. 

At the Feb. 20 meeting, the commissioners scheduled an executive session for Feb. 26 to discuss the Pacifica report. Commissioners Ehrmantraut, Gaylord and Tim Fuller explained that it took several weeks to schedule the meeting due to the difficulty of coordinating calendars among the various parties. 

Questions about the intentions behind the review of the contract are at the root of much of the contentiousness that has swirled around the department. 

Commissioners who support the review have said that their intention is to ensure that the contract is on a solid legal footing. Others believe that the purpose of the review is to re-open the contract and perhaps replace the chief.

Volunteers’ no-confidence letter

At a Feb. 12 special meeting, the fire district’s volunteer lieutenants were invited to share the concerns expressed in their January letter of no-confidence in the new commissioners. 

Ehrmantraut opened by saying that he saw the meeting “as an opportunity for us all to change the tone of the ongoing discourse” and “a moment … to set upon a path toward healing and reconciliation.” 

He also said that “significant progress” had been made on several of the specific issues cited in the letter of no-confidence, including receipt of the Pacifica opinion regarding vanSchaick’s contract and development of a levy proposal. 

Safety Officer Greg Sawyer, the volunteer group’s designated representative, said that the officers who had backed the letter were speaking for themselves as well as for other volunteer and professional members of the department with whom they are in regular contact. 

A levy proposal on the April 23 ballot is intended to pay for Orcas Island Fire and Rescue operational expenses; crew drills engage a variety of aid vehicles. (OIFR)

He noted that events leading up to and following last November’s election had contributed to a growing sense of distrust on the part of both the new commissioners and members of the department. He also described how he had been disturbed by the level of dysfunction that he had observed at a recent commission meeting. 

Respect and trust

Sawyer concluded by saying that he “wanted to take this time to reflect less on how we got here and more on how can we improve the level of dialogue so that it is respectful and trustful so that we know we’re all headed in the same direction.”

Other lieutenants spoke about the adversarial tone in commission meetings that they have observed since the election of the new commissioners and encouraged the new commissioners to adopt a more collegial tone. 

Another issue for the volunteer firefighters is the perception of disregard on the part of the newly elected commissioners toward vanSchaick. The lieutenants described their understanding of the appropriate role that the chief should play in providing expert advice to the commission, and shared the high level of respect they have for vanSchaick. Several veteran officers with a decade or more of service said that she is the best chief that the department “has seen in some time.”

Some of the lieutenants shared what they perceive as the adversarial approach of newly elected Gaylord. 

In response, Gaylord pointed to his 28-year career as prosecuting attorney for San Juan County and said that the approach he uses has been proven to work over time. He asked that the members of the fire district accept his approach and said that his intention is to act in ways that he feels are best for the district. 

In remarks prior to the meeting, Gaylord said that while he believes his approach is one that works, he could see that it might be jarring to some and that he would attempt to “soften” if that seemed appropriate.

Following the meeting, Fuller said that he thought that “the volunteers handled themselves admirably … if the commission didn’t hear them, that would be a shame.”

The volunteers came to the meeting “with open hearts and minds,” vanSchaick said. “They communicated with calmness, respect, and empathy … I am glad that Chair Ehrmantraut chose to call a meeting to listen to the officers. It is a hopeful sign that we can all work together moving forward in the best interest of the community.”

— Reported by Minor Lile

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