Thursday, April 18, 2024

My reasons for resigning


I have resigned as commissioner of Chelan County Fire Protection District 7 (Chelan Fire & Rescue).  At the outset of my term I said I would serve as long as I continued to help improve Chelan Fire & Rescue.  After lengthy consideration I concluded I was no longer able to do so.  
Let me make this very clear—I am convinced that each and every individual in Chelan Fire and Rescue is committed to the mission “to protect the lives and property of the citizens and visitors in our district and community through emergency response, education and prevention.” This has not changed.
Now, as a private citizen and no longer an elected official, here are my reasons for resigning after four plus years as your Fire Commissioner.
First, Washington State’s Open Public Meeting Act severely restricts our commissioners from performing their duties in an effective and effcient manner. According to this act, “the people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”  As a result, Commissioners are forced to limit all discussions with fellow commissioners to public meetings under scrutiny of the public and the media with every word open to interpretation and potential legal scrutiny. What would generally take days to accomplish in most business settings takes months to accomplish in the public eye. Transparency is crucial to the functioning of an effective government - an informed public is imperative in this regard. However, sensitive and candid discourse among commissioners in confidence is necessary at times to produce quick, effective decisions about services that have real life and death consequences. The Open Public Meeting Act may be well- intentioned but the constraints it imposes on public officials are excessive, unproductive, and raise costs for everyone. I was no longer willing to serve with such debilitating restrictions.
Second, the public cannot expect any organization to function on a budget which, by law, is only allowed to increase 1% per year despite inflation rising at higher rates. For as long as I can remember, I have never seen wages and benefits in the public or private sector grow by 1% or less; most often it has been 3% or more per year. Since people are the single most important and most expensive asset of Chelan Fire & Rescue, it is unrealistic to expect the department to survive on an increase of 1% per year.  Many people in Chelan have voiced that they expect the same level of service from the fire department over time with no additional increase in revenues. This simply does not work.  
Third, Washington State limits, by law, the revenue sources for fire departments.  Chelan Fire & Rescue currently depends almost entirely on property taxes, occasionally supplemented by federal grants which are very unpredictable.  Fire Protection District 7 has approximately 7,500 property owners, yet has over an estimated 2,000,000 visitors between May and October of each year. After researching this, I have found no practical way for our district to tax these visitors to help pay for services they may receive while they are here. Nor does our district appear to have any practical way to tax businesses that benefit from visitors. Yet our fire district provides its services without support from this transient population. This is an unsustainable situation which contributes to the inevitability of increasing local property taxes at rates that may force, unfairly, numerous property owners from their homes. I do not condone, nor could I support the reliance on a single primary source of revenue that promotes this outcome.
Fourth, the 2018 Chelan Fire & Rescue Community Task Force Report stated in its introduction “tax initiatives, burgeoning personnel/operational costs for providing services and increased demands for services have outstripped the ability to effectively fund most Fire Departments at their current level”.  Yet, I have not seen effective plans from the department that contain substantive means to cut costs in the future. Instead of valuing input from its Chelan Fire & Rescue volunteer members, and the whole department working collaboratively to create new, better, and less expensive ways to provide services, the answer to increased demands is always the same old model I’ve heard since I’ve been here: more paid staff, more money, and more taxes. Instead of the hospital board agreeing to explore with Chelan Fire & Rescue the possible consolidation of EMS and fire services, they deliberately failed to engage actively because the Manson Fire District would not join the conversation. Certainly higher taxes will be required to support emergency services going forward but much too little has been done to find efficiencies that would minimize the size of such increases.
I have to come to understand that Washington State, the residents of the Lake Chelan area, and Chelan Fire & Rescue, all have set unrealistic expectations that cannot be met using the current system of governance and taxation.  Compromise on all fronts will be required to arrive at a system that does work, and provides the public the emergency services they require.  The Fire Commissioners alone cannot fix this broken system and, it is not their responsibility to do so.  
Throughout my tenure I promoted communication and encouraged participation of all members of Chelan Fire & Rescue and the community in fire department matters. I sincerely hope the future will be forged by melding great ideas from each commissioner, administrator, volunteer and career firefighter, with the best interests of the community in mind.
Tom Peters


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