Ore. fire union fears ballot measure could reduce staffing by more than 25%
North Bend voters will decide whether to reduce the public safety fee, which union members worry will lead to significant cuts
The World, Coos Bay, Ore.
NORTH BEND, Ore. — Some members of the North Bend Professional Firefighters Association are feeling the pressure of Ballot Measure 6-177 as residents decide whether or not to lower the public safety fee.
“Should (the measure) pass, we will see a 28% reduction in our frontline firefighters and we absolutely can’t have that right now,” said Luke Rector, a member of the association.
The current May ballot measure asks residents, “Shall the Public Safety fee be reduced from $30 to no more than $15, with voter approval for future increases?”
The measure’s summary describes a “yes” vote as reducing public safety funding by $785,000, resulting in the elimination of police services from 11 p.m.-7 a.m.
A “yes” vote also would reduce detective staffing by 50 percent, and eliminate police responses to “many civil and criminal occurrences such as non-injury traffic crashes, trespass with no other crime, thefts under $25 and medical calls.”
In the measure summary, there is no mention of firefighters losing personnel. However, the possibility of cuts at the fire department are still being discussed by city officials.
When asked why a reduction of the fee would impact fire services, City Manager Terence O’Connor pointed to this being how the general fund is handled.
“The issue is one of public safety, where the departments are both funded out of the general fund,” O’Connor explained. “As funds get eliminated or reduced, there is a domino effect on how that impacts all of the operations in the general fund. Police and fire are the preeminent users of tax dollars and fees of the general fund because taxes don’t cover the cost of police and fire … As fees are reduced, revenue gets reduced. The citizens would tell us they want a reduction of funding given to public safety.”
Understaffing at the department
Rector said that the fire department has seven full-time frontline firefighters at the moment, as well as a chief and assistant chief.
“We are already understaffed and if this (measure) passes, we lose two more guys and that would make it impossible for us to respond to every medical call and quite literally cost people their lives,” Rector said. “When you become a firefighter, you don’t go into the line of work for the money or the glory. You do it because you love the citizens, love helping people and love the job. If that is taken from us, it would be detrimental to the community.”
Rector said he’d like to see nine firefighters so that there would be three people per shift. Currently, firefighters at the department work 48 hours on and 96 hours off. With staffing as it is now, there is a two man shift and one three man shift “on a good day, assuming no one has a sick day or vacation,” he said.
When a medical emergency call is made, fire personnel arrive on scene first “90% of the time,” Rector said, adding that it takes an average of three minutes or less while it takes the local ambulance service between five to six minutes “determining where the call is.”
The department’s swift response has saved lives in the past. As recently as February, Rector was one of the firefighters who arrived first on scene when a man stopped breathing at the North Bend Public Library.
“We were there within one minute,” Retor remembered. “(We) hooked him up to an AED, shocked him, did chest compressions and by the time the ambulance arrived he was starting to breathe on his own and made a 100% full recovery. That’s just one example that I was personally involved in, but we’ve been on numerous calls where we arrived before the ambulance.”
Anger over the public safety fee
Grassroots opposition to the increased fee, North Bend Citizens for Good Faith Government, is responsible for pushing Measure 6-177 onto the ballot. The group also pushed Measure 6-176 on the ballot, which would require the City Council to ask voter approval before increasing any fees again.
The pushback on the fee grew alongside a steady increase of the fee itself, which started out at $5. Residents voted down any further fee increases in 2018 when the fee was $15. Now, it is $30.
Treasurer for North Bend Citizens for Good Faith Government, Jim Rose, argued that the potential cuts to the police and fire departments if the fee is decreased “are not truthful.”
“The public budgeting process for 2021 (won’t) start until May 19, but the cuts talked about have not been voted on by an official in North Bend,” he said. “That’s shameful that those statements are made.”
He added that over the past 11 years, the fire department’s budget has only increased by 12.6% while the police department budget increased by over 32%. He wondered, “How did the City Council allow the budget of the police department to rise at almost three times the level of the fire department over that period of time?”
O’Connor said the North Bend Police Department follows the model of positive community policing, with officers available around the clock to respond to issues as they arise.
“The question is ‘what do you want your officers to do’ — have them available 24-7 for all emergencies or have less interaction?” O’Connor said.
For Rector, he says he understands citizens' frustration for how “it was laid out and came to be” regarding the public safety fee. However, the “bottom line is we’re here now and we have to vote 'No.' I understand the argument on the other side, but bottom line we need fire personnel for sure."
©2020 The World, Coos Bay, Ore.