Warrenton fire district leaders, volunteers debate sales tax


SEEKING COMMUNITY SUPPORT — Warrenton Fire Chief Anthony Hayeslip answers a question during a July 16 town hall in Pendleton to discuss a proposed half-cent sales tax. The fire district is asking voters to approve the sales tax Aug. 4 to relieve the district’s strained budget. Adam Rollins photo.
By: 
Adam Rollins
Staff Writer

The role of volunteer firefighters was a matter of contentious debate during a July 16 town hall meeting at the Pendleton Fire Station.

The Warrenton Fire Protection District held the town hall to answer questions about a proposed half-cent sales tax that will go before district voters Aug. 4.

The district says it needs the sales tax to recover from a budget crunch that has seen its reserve funds depleted and other costs slashed to make ends meet.

District leaders estimate the sales tax would generate around $800,000 in a year. By state law, half of that would go toward a $400,000 reduction in property taxes for district residents in the following year. The rest would help fill the holes in the fire district’s budget.

Fire Chief Anthony Hayeslip said the district is in such a financial state because of a decision several years ago to expand professional firefighter staffing to 24/7 coverage. Responding to a question at the July 16 town hall, Hayeslip said the change was made because of increasing demand for service and declining volunteer firefighter participation.

The fire district’s property tax levy, last increased in 2001, was only designed to provide partial professional coverage, about one-third of the staffing that the district currently pays for.

In the 2019-2020 budget, salary and benefits for district staff made up $863,000 of the district’s $1.2 million budget.

District voters have rejected a property tax increase to pay for this expanded service three times since 2014.

One-time volunteer firefighters who attended the July 16 town hall said the fire district is reliant on professionals because it alienated and pushed out multiple volunteers.

“We were told we were not needed,” said volunteer firefighter Erick Rasche of Pendleton. He said the Pendleton Fire Station was deactivated in 2019, and afterward he and others were told they had to staff several monthly eight-hour shifts in Warrenton to be considered active volunteers.

Rasche said that isn’t practical because he has a full-time job.

Chief Hayeslip disputes ever telling a volunteer that they “weren’t needed.”

Roger Owenby, a former volunteer for 25 years, said he believes the fire district does need more funding, but should first rebuild its volunteer service to reduce staffing costs. He pointed to hundreds-of-thousands of dollars budgeted in overtime pay in previous years for work he said could have been provided by volunteers or temporary part-time staff, who wouldn’t have charged overtime rates.

“We have no problem giving more money. It’s our fire department, our community department. But show us the financial responsibility first,” Owenby said. “I don’t feel the district has done enough to justify getting a raise.”

Fire district leaders maintain that volunteer firefighter numbers have been naturally declining for years nationwide. They fear the district’s emergency response would become less reliable if they eliminate paid staffing hours.

Rob Vogelgesang, a 15-year volunteer firefighter who was elected to the fire district board of directors in 2019, said he agrees with that assessment.

“Volunteers provide a great service, but at the end of the day ... they have lives outside of here. They have families, they have jobs, they have church,” Vogelgesang said. “To rely on them on a regular basis like we can rely on a professional person? In today’s age, it just can’t happen.”

Fire Capt. Matt Dabbs said an incident that highlighted this challenge was a deadly 2015 house fire, prior to 24/7 professional coverage, which occurred after career staff had gone off duty for the weekend.

“We had a fire on Roy Avenue. It took quite a bit of time for a truck to get out,” and a woman was later found dead in her bedroom, Dabbs said. He told The Record it took almost 10 minutes for a truck to leave the station with two volunteers responding. He said it’s unknown whether a faster response could have saved the woman.

“That’s when we said, we’ve really got to get somebody in here 24/7,” Dabbs said.

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