Fire Dept. mulls closure

Closing the Garibaldi Fire Department (GFD) would be a “last resort,” but is a “very real scenario” due to increased state and federal training requirements, new equipment standards, volunteer attrition and a limited budget, Chief Jay Marugg told about a dozen attendees at an open house at City Hall, Aug. 27.

GFD open house XB
Port of Garibaldi Manager Michael Saindon (left) and GFD Chief Jay Marugg (right) outline the fire district’s financial woes and possible solutions during an open house at City Hall, Aug. 27.

By Ann Powers

Garibaldi officials said the meeting was the first in a series they’re scheduling to educate the public on the volunteer fire department’s sustainability struggles and possible solutions.

“Closing the fire department is the last resort,” said Marugg. “We’re going to do everything we can so that doesn’t happen.”

In September of 2015, city officials established a steering committee to review GFD’s viability issues and options.

GFD’s level of funding has not changed since the 1960s and the unit has been woefully under funded for at least 10 years, Marugg added. Currently, residents living within Garibaldi city limits pay 58 cents per $1,000 of their accessed property value. Rural residents pay 48 cents.

Garibaldi City Manager John O’Leary said Garibaldi’s tax rate for fire protection is one of the lowest statewide. For example, the owner of a house assessed at $175,000 pays about $100 annually, or $8.33 monthly, to the city for fire protection.

“When you look at the tax rates for what we pay for fire protection directly, it’s one of the smallest rates you’ll find in the state of Oregon – period,” he said. “Right now in Garibaldi it costs more for you to pay for garbage service than it does for fire protection.”

O’Leary added that inadequate funding, staffing and training could also lead to liability issues with insurance companies and bankrupt the city if lawsuits come into play.

“There’s going be a risk to the city,” he said. “We’re going to get somebody injured. We’re going to get somebody killed – and we can’t do that.”

During Saturday’s open house, Marugg outlined five different plans calling for Garibaldi to work with neighboring communities to form a regional fire district and create a bigger tax base to cover necessary costs and staffing needs. The suggested proposals (with varying staffing, operations, equipment and maintenance options) would charge taxpayers anywhere from 91 cents to $1.95 per $1,000 of assessed property value – depending on the plan.

“The level of service would be based on what taxpayers want,” said Michael Saindon, Port of Garibaldi manager and steering committee member. “We are very cognizant of taxes. We want to make sure we’re getting the best value for the buck.”

A Garibaldi resident attending the meeting said she was “embarrassed” by the low turnout of community members and entrusted city officials to make sound funding decisions – especially since many of the alerts GFD responds to are medical calls.

“I’m okay with whatever they want,” she said. “I’m disabled and I’ve called for (emergency services). I don’t want that to go away.”

If GFD shuts down, Marugg said emergency services would most likely come from outside providers and recipients would be charged. Instead, forming a district gives taxpayers more control over what those fees would be.

And depending on the provider’s location and priorities, some calls may not be answered in a timely manner.
Moreover, a closing would result in the Insurance Service Office (ISO) rating to go up, resulting in higher insurance premiums for property owners.

The ISO is a nationwide nonprofit organization evaluating fire departments in the U.S. It assigns a rating between one and 10 – one being the best and 10 being the worst.

The rating reflects the overall effectiveness of the department and helps determine fire insurance premiums for property owners in the department’s jurisdiction. Marugg said GFD’s current ISO rating is a three, which is considered “a very low number.”

Fire Districts being considered for the conglomeration include Tillamook, Nedonna Nestucca, Nehalem, Netarts/Oceanside, the City of Garibaldi and the Garibaldi rural area.

Rockaway officials attending Saturday’s open house said their council members are not currently in favor of joining a combined district.

“We could do it ourselves,” said Rockaway Fire Chief Barry Mammano. “We have enough tax evaluation… ours is well over $400 million.”

Garibaldi city officials emphasized before any new tax rates could be implemented, measures dissolving the current fire district and creating a new one would be subject to voter approval. That process could take at least two years minimum.

Additional open meetings are being planned and yet to be scheduled. In the meantime, Garibaldi officials encourage feedback from residents via email or posting their opinions on Facebook and community websites.
“This is not a decision we want to make in a vacuum,” O’Leary said. “This is a community decision. We’re not the tail wagging the dog.”

Bay City’s fire department also held an open house on Aug. 27 addressing the same concerns as GFD’s.
Currently, GFD has a staff of 16 volunteer firefighters ranging in age from 17 (cadets) to 78. Both Marugg and Assistant Chief Martin McCormick plan on retiring from the fire department soon.