Fire board approves $1.575M bond levy request

Sean C. Morgan

The Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District Board of Directors on Feb. 1 approved a seven-year bond levy request for the May ballot.

Voting to place the request on the ballot were Don Hopkins, President Dawn Mitchell, Larry Johnson and Tim Geil. Elmer Riemer was absent.

The district will seek $1.575 million. If approved, the district will sell general obligation bonds to pay for equipment and capital improvements. The district will pay off the bonds over a seven-year period, using property taxes.

The tax rate is estimated at 31 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, said Fire Chief Dave Barringer. Estimates ranged from 31 to 36 cents, but the final paperwork sets the estimate at 31 cents, which is less than the rate for the district’s current bond levy, 37 cents.

He noted that Sweet Home’s property tax rate is $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value. Lebanon has a rate of $2.27. Tangent is $2.57, and Mohawk is $1.92.

Even if bond rates end up at 36 cents, the total rate for Sweet Home remains lower than these other three area districts, he said.

The new bond would not take effect until the current bond is repaid in January of 2017, Barringer said.

“That way we’re not asking the voters to pay more than they’re currently paying,” Mitchell said. “It keeps it at the same rate (or lower). It’s just an extra amount of time.”

District officials have developed a list of priorities over the past year. Topping that list is self-contained breathing apparatus for firefighters’ use at fires.

The district needs 45 sets, including a spare air pack for each, Barringer said. The district is seeking a grant, but if the grant doesn’t materialize, the district will need to use bond money to buy them. The cost is estimated at $272,000.

Asking a firefighter to fight fire without it is “like asking a SCUBA diver to go to 1,000 feet without any gear,” Mitchell said.

The district’s current equipment is nearing the end of its certified lifespan, which is 15 years, Barringer said.

“This is going to take care of what I would consider immediate needs,” he said. It will return the district to an ambulance rotation of two to three years by paying for an ambulance immediately and a second new one three years into the bond.

“It’s not about what we want,” Mitchell said. “It’s about what we need.”

In addition to paying for SCBA gear and ambulances, the bond would replace two rescue vehicles and the battalion chief’s response vehicle; take care of deteriorating roofing at substations; pave; help construct a new building in Sweet Home in partnership with the Volunteer Association, which would provide indoor storage for apparatus; remodel the Fire Hall to make space for medics living at the station; pay for new extrication tools, powered cots and radio equipment; and replace the siding and build a new bay at the Foster substation.

District personnel have been doing what they can in the past couple of years to handle issues within the district.

“Our main job is to run emergency calls,” Barringer said. “We spend a lot of time trying to take care of issues. There’s been a lot of things, because of our financial situation, that we haven’t been able to address.”

District staff and volunteers replaced the siding on the Fire Hall last year. A battalion chief handles a lot of the vehicle maintenance and repairs.

The district is replacing part of the roof at the Fire Hall with grant funds and with conflagration funds, which are funds the state reimburses the district in exchange for the use of personnel and equipment to fight forest fires.

“We’re doing a lot with very little,” Barringer said. “If we hadn’t had the conflagration money, we wouldn’t be able to do some of the things we’ve done.”

Mitchell said she’s thankful for staff and volunteers who have showed up to take care of things like painting and replacing the lights on apparatus.

“I’m definitely greatly appreciative of everybody that’s involved down here,” she said.

That kind of work comes with a cost, though, Barringer said. When staff and volunteers are otherwise busy, they miss daily training and they don’t get other work done, like pre-fire planning, business inspections and hydrant flushing.