The Point Roberts Taxpayers Association initiative to meet and hear from local tax district officials got off to a fiery beginning as fire chief Chris Carleton found himself on the defensive when board members and guests questioned recent fire department spending.
“I am the expert,” said Carleton at the January 7 meeting. “I know what this community doesn’t have. There are always going to be folks who come back and say you spent money you shouldn’t have. Then if they don’t get the service, they say you should have spent the money. They win either way. I’m about spending the money you give me to provide services.”
Both Carleton and commissioner Bill Meursing were invited by the board to be the first in a series of meetings with local elected officials. “What interests us is getting good value for our taxes,” association president Mark Robbins said. “Two years ago the fire department asked for and voters approved a large tax increase – almost a doubling of the levy. We endorsed that. This is a good time to see how that’s doing.”
Robbins recalled that the levy was sold to voters as a way for the fire district to make capital purchases, increase manpower and coverage, and improve emergency medical services.
Meursing remarked that the increased levy, over half a million dollars this year, is “a lot of money,” and an “awesome responsibility.” He said commissioners offered guidance to the chief through budgetary oversight. “We did not do a heck of a lot the first year with the monies for various reasons,” he said. “This year there’s a completely new budget with an emphasis on training, medical issues and capital investment.” He added that the budget was available on the district website.
Carleton outlined a number of purchases covered under the operational budget that would improve the department’s efficiency. “Equipment is the big thing,” he said. “I need to make one firefighter as efficient as two.”
“It sounds as if you feel your department was way behind,” Robbins said. “Is this a big surge of capital purchases you think will taper off?” Carleton answered that he did.
Carleton said he was also increasing stipends to make it more rewarding for volunteers to respond as well as encourage more local residents to volunteer. The department roster currently has only four local responders out of 35 members, with two of them seasonally unavailable. The remaining members are Canadians, he said, who come to the department to gain job experience. “They have no less importance than the people who live here because they have the same responsibilities and they come cheap,” Carleton said, pointing out that Canadian members do not receive stipends for a six-month probationary period and pay for their own EMT training until they have served the department for a year.
Several audience members questioned why, out of approximately $250,000 in increased funding, $100,000 of it was going into a reserve account and capital fund. “You’re saying that’s not needed for operations,” Arthur Reber said. “If, as time goes by, less will be needed for capital expenditures, where’s the money going?”
Carleton and Meursing explained that there would be an ongoing need for capital expenditures, from paving the parking lot to a new fire engine. “There’s a whole bunch of things that can be said about having a truck less than 19 years old [the department's newest engine],” Carleton said. The larger engine is 21 years old and has a leaking tank.
Rob Dean questioned why the department wasn’t looking at replacing the tank, rather than the entire apparatus. “I’m all about repairing things, but you can only repair to a certain point,” Carleton said, adding that newer technology in modern engines would improve efficiency and safety.
“There will be a very large amount of money in these accounts – almost half a million dollars by the end of this year,” Judy Ross said. “There is a genuine concern that when money is available in a technology-rich culture, the money will get spent.”
Reber asked the two men if they foresaw a time when the district would decide the reserves were sufficient and return funds to taxpayers. Meursing and Carleton said it wasn’t practical to answer but predicted an ongoing need to fund capital reserves. “We’re talking all sorts of stuff,” Meursing said.
“My concern is, am I going to keep paying into a fund to buy newer things?” Darren May asked. “Where does it stop?”
“I would say technology never stops,” Carleton answered.
Reber suggested that the district should undertake a cost/benefit analysis that would allow voters to objectively determine whether taxpayers were getting their money’s worth. “Are things twice as good because there is twice the money?” he asked.
“Things weren’t ok,” Carleton said. “It’s not just 'Did the truck work?' or 'Did the house burn down?' but 'Were they as efficient as they can be?' I don’t want the Cadillac but I don’t want the slums.”
Judson Meraw suggested some members of the community were happy to pay for increased services, and asked how much it would cost to add another paramedic. Currently Carleton, who is contracted for 80 hours per month, is the only paramedic. Carleton said full-time paramedic service was not feasible for Point Roberts. “EMTs are the basis of medical care and that is what Point Roberts has had for decades,” Carleton said. An online Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) course is planned to allow more department members to earn the certification.
Water district commissioner Scott Hackleman and district manager Dan Bourks will be in the hot seat at the February 4 taxpayers’ association meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. at the Gulf Road community center.