By Lynsi Burton
Skagit Valley Herald
ALGER, Wash. — Volunteer-based Skagit County Fire District 14, which covers the Alger area, is seeking a fire chief as part of a move to make the top spot a paid position.
But the decision comes with some controversy, prompting former Chief Dan Costanti to resign over the direction of the department and firefighters and to claim the department is unnecessarily wasting money on the position.
Six people have applied for the job, and fire district commissioners hope to hire a new chief by year’s end. They have posted the salary for the part-time, 15- to 20-hours-per-week job as negotiable and have not said how much money that might be.
Costanti resigned Oct. 9 after nearly 39 years with the department, 26 of those as chief.
He disagreed with the decision to make the chief position paid and said he’s frustrated with the leadership on the commission.
“Our budget just doesn’t allow for a paid chief,” Costanti said. “… It’s just not worth it.”
Costanti will resume service as a volunteer firefighter.
Assistant Chief Marty Coble, a 21-year veteran of the department, has taken the interim chief position and applied for the new chief post.
Coble declined to offer an opinion on the friction between commissioners and other members of the department, but said he wants the fire district to remain positive.
“I’m trying to hold it together,” Coble said. “I know there’s problems that we have to solve.”
Commissioners, however, simply say they want to advance the department and hold someone accountable for the responsibilities of the fire district.
Commissioner Pat Curran said the volunteer fire department is being held to increasingly higher training standards, similar to those of professional and full-time fire departments.
“There’s a lot of stuff that we want to make sure gets done,” Curran said.
Commissioner Michael Nemnich said he wants to see “better response times, training, more manpower, more organization.”
Firefighter and safety officer Scott Keith said the commissioners are trying to spend money on “things we really don’t need.”
“They want to bring in a paid chief, and we don’t have the money for it,” he said.
Curran acknowledges the department has a small budget but says the chief spot will still be paid without raising the property tax levy. Rather, commissioners will seek grants to help fund the position.
The fire district collects 54 cents per $1,000 assessed property value; it can legally raise the tax to $1 per $1,000.
Costanti pegged the 2013 budget at about $187,000.
Curran says the department typically has money available for equipment and other needs. It built a new fire hall in 2003 without issuing a bond.
“We have money, it’s just how much do we want to spend on (a chief), and how much do we want to maintain for equipment and other things?” he said.
Meanwhile, Coble hopes to keep the political conflicts in check.
“I just hope we could work it out,” Coble said. “Both sides are going to have to give.”
Copyright 2012 Skagit Valley Herald (Mount Vernon, WA)
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