It is time for the Keizer Fire District and Marion County Fire District #1 to stop their bickering, take a breather and plan for a future that few want to acknowledge.
The back and forth between the two fire districts, especially in front of the Keizer City Council, has long passed the point of being embarrassing for Keizer. For every point one side makes, the other side refutes it. What are Keizer residents, especially those who live in the Clear Lake area to think?
Keizer residents of both fire districts seem to be satisfied with the service they receive. With mutual aid agreements no one’s house will be allowed to burn due to petulant territorial claims; no one will die of a heart attack because there’s disagreement on which district should respond to the emergency call. The two districts (along with the other fire fighting organizations in our region) have a long and proud history of coming to the aid of their brethren.
Both the Keizer Fire District and Marion County Fire District #1 are rightly proud of the service they provide their constituents and communities. But that is what we have grown up believing that firefighters do—provide excellent service in times of emergency and tragedy. So the issue of the Clear Lake annexation is more than just about levels of service. It is about revenue and the sustainability of each district.
More than 80 percent of the calls the districts respond to are not fire related. They are medical emergencies which means sending an ambulance and a EMT crew to each call. With changes to Medicare reimbursements, providing ambulance service is a losing game regardless of which district or department is responding. That is a fact that cannot be argued away or refuted.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have spent so far on legal expenses on the Clear Lake annexation issue. With budgets as constrained as they are now and will be in the coming years this kind of unnecessary spending has got to come to an end. As one witness at this week’s city council meeting remarked, the money that will be spent on legal bills during this fight could buy a new fire truck.
The fire districts are not faced with just declining Medicare reimbursements, they will also face decreasing tax revenues over the next years. There is little confidence that this annexation issue can be a win-win for all sides. Both districts have their challenges. I2f the City of Salem continues its annexation march into areas east of Interstate 5 that could eventually include large swaths of the Jan Ree neighborhoods which provide upwards of 60 percent of Marion County Fire District #1’s tax base. If Jan Ree is annexed out of the District #1 that will severely limit what the District will be able to do. The annexation process in northeast Salem may not happen for a few years, but it will happen.
In June we called for the city of Keizer to withdraw Clear Lake from Marion County Fire District #1. The way this issued has been handled by both sides forces us to reassess our position. It is unsettling to watch the two fire chiefs trading barbs; this issue should be discussed at the board level, where policy is set.
Both districts are manned by dedicated public servants. No one would ever say that the paid and volunteer firefighters and EMTs do not provide the finest in service and care. That is not an issue and never has been. At issue is how that service can best be provided in light of new economic realities now and in the future.
The best solution is for the district’s to reinstate the ambulance agreement that allows Keizer Fire District to collect the $75,000 it lost when the agreement was abandoned. Then the two districts should agree to a moratorium on the annexation issue for five years, allowing for in depth discussions on the future of both districts.