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Bend council OKs May vote on fire dept. levy

By Barney Lerten
Published On: Aug 08 2013 01:31:17 AM CDT
Updated On: Aug 09 2013 02:24:10 AM CDT

NewsChannel 21's Kim Tobin notes how an ER doctor's disturbing diagnosis has propelled a Bend Fire and Rescue tax proposal to the May ballot

BEND, Ore. -

Fires are the risky and dramatic part of what Bend Fire and Rescue workers are seen and usually applauded for doing, but roughly 80 percent of their work has to do with the last part of their name – “and Rescue.”

And it’s really not that often about the headline-grabbing tales of plucking people from burning buildings, but instead rushing to try to save people with a wide variety of medical crises, from car crashes to household accidents, heart attacks – you name it.

And with the agency’s part of the city’s General Fund budget under strain from the things that squeeze all governments – health insurance and pension costs, for example, and until late, the building downturn – the charts and numbers were of course a big chunk of Interim Fire Chief Larry Langston’s city council work session pitch Wednesday night for sending the department’s first-ever money request to voters next May.

Without any new staffing, but replacing aging fire engines and ambulances, Langston said the fire department’s budget will go into the red by $1 million within two years. (The council already has approved replacing 20-year-old fire engines; next up: ambulance upgrades.)

But amid all the graphs and stats and things councilors are well aware of, having seen the consultants' recommendations before, Langston knew just the right guy to have batting cleanup, as it were – the fire department’s “physician sponsor,” St. Charles-Bend ER Dr. Bill Reed.

Reed, a former Navy flight surgeon, has since 2007 supervised the fire department’s medical protocols, helps them in monthly reviewing cases of what went right and wrong, etc.

But Wednesday night, he also shared with councilors – in sanitized, no-details-due-to-privacy-law fashion – that there have been three Bend Fire medical patients this year alone who died chiefly due to too-slow response times.

In one “abdominal catastrophe,” he said, “someone died in front of two medics who couldn’t get help” in time, Reed said. Another was a respiratory case in which it took 19 minutes for an ambulance to show up. A third death happened, he said, because crews were all out “on a big fire or something” and there was “an incredibly long response time to somebody who shouldn’t have died – a respiratory death.”

“They have the resources, they have the tools,” he said. “They just don’t have the manning or the help to get done what they need to get done.”

“It’s like pulling the bottom block out of Jenga,” the tower-building game, Reed said – eventually, something has to give, or as he likened it, become the “canary in the coal mine.”

“I’m not a specialist in municipal finance – that’s your wing, not mine,” he told the city leaders. But noting the Bend Park and Rec District voters’ recent approval of $30 million in bonds, Reed said it’s high time for a “wants vs. needs discussion” in the community.

And every single councilor agreed that it’s time to stop kicking the can down the road, and all signed on to work toward a May 2014 ballot measure that likely will ask voters for 20 cents per $1,000 worth of property taxes to keep the fire district budget in the black.

That would raise about $2 million a year, while lowering response times closer to the state "80th percentile" of 5-8 minutes, both in the city and in the rural fire district it also serves.

Speaking of Deschutes County Rural Fire District No. 2 – which over a decade ago built the new fire stations for the city it contracts with – Bend apparently has decided not to go in the direction Redmond did, and merge the city fire department into the larger rural district it serves. Langston said the fire district board is unanimously on board with the proposal.

Councilor Mark Capell said he’d been uncomfortable with the idea of a city fire department merger into the rural fire district.

“It’s a good short-term, monetary decision,” he said. “But long term, you end up with something like the park district,” which several decades ago was spun off from the city government into its own, separate taxing district.

“We have great parks because of it,” Capell acknowledged, “but we’ve built this big bureaucracy, and there’s a lot of money over there. I think long term, we can be more efficient for the community by keeping the fire department as part of the city.”

On Thursday, he was even more blunt about the importance of the fire funding measure.

"It's an absolute need," Capell said. "There are people who are going to die if we don't pass the bond measure."

As for a May vote to ask voters for more money – never a sure thing, in good times, bad or in between -- the timing might be as good as it gets,  too.

Langston noted that there are expiring Deschutes County jail and downtown Bend library bonds – and said Sheriff Larry Blanton and the library district have told him they don't plan to ask voters for new bonds next spring to replace the expiring ones. (The county is funding a scaled-down jail expansion in another method.)

As a result, Langston said, “I think it (a fire district levy) would be cost-neutral (for taxpayers), compared to what the property taxes are now.”

That approach has worked well for Bend-La Pine Schools, which in recent years has asked voters for new bonds for new schools and upgrades as old bonds were paid off – and has won at the ballot box as a result.

“This fire department has never asked voters for additional funds beyond the tax base,” Langston said. “Chief (Larry) Huhn did a really good job in keeping costs down. But I don’t think there’s any more efficiencies to be gained.”

Still, it was the ER doctor’s word of actual deaths in Bend due to slow response times – roughly nine to 12 minutes – that clearly convinced many councilors it’s time to stop, in one popular phrase, kicking the can down the road.

Capell said the city has been “very lucky” in some major fires, noting that if the March Trinity Episcopal Church arson fire had happened at 10 p.m., when stations were empty, “we could have burned down the entire block. But it happened in the middle of the night, when all the people were in station, so we got a lot of resources there quickly.”

“We haven’t had anyone come to council and say, my spouse or my kid died because you didn’t have enough staffing. It’s the one thing that scares me being on council. It’s going to happen one of these days – and it sort of just did. Because you talked about three stories this year when someone died, and they shouldn’t have. And it’s our fault – it’s our fault, and we have to find a solution to this.”

Colleague Jodie Barram echoed Langston’s points about the wide benefits of a strong fire department, from economic development and business recruitment to lower fire insurance rates for residents and businesses.

“It’s imperative that this council take action,” she said. “Knowing that there are property taxes that are expiring that makes this revenue-neutral, I think makes this very palatable to the voters.”

Councilor Victor Chudowsky noted a big education element he’d already experienced at some meetings, about how the vast majority of the department’s work involves medical calls, not fires.

“To most people, the chances of your house catching fire are fairly remote,” he said. “But In most of our lives, at some point, you’re going to need an ambulance.” And for voters weighing a money request, he said, talking about “shortening response times to a person having a cardiac arrest, I think chances of this are very good.”

Colleague Doug Knight weighed in in favor, as did Scott Ramsay: “I think we’re all in unison.”

As is the custom, Mayor Jim Clinton had the last word: “I always have felt the fire department and firefighters do an excellent job for the community under challenging circumstances.”

Clinton called it “unfortunate” that Bend has for decades had a relatively small property tax base of $2.80 per $1,000 “to do everything we have to do,” from police and fire to planning and roads, etc.

“We’re trying to be a real city here, and we shouldn’t try to ‘get by’ any more,” Clinton said. “I think that’s long passed as a viable strategy.” So he told the fire chief, “I think we’re ready to (put something on the ballot) as quickly as you are.”

The main deadline is to have a resolution passed by the council by their second February meeting.

“The sooner the better,” Langston said, already planning visits to the homeowners associations and Chamber of Commerce, among others. “We’re going to put our heart into helping the community understand these issues, and it’ll take time.”

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