By Ken Ross
Following citizen opposition to planned elimination of fire department positions, the Cherokee City Council decided to retain the two driver/dispatcher positions, at least for another year.
A plan was put together to raise revenue from fire department fees, to eliminate the part-time chief position and to spend some of the general fund balance in order to maintain the two driver/dispatcher positions for the next year. Doug Woods, council member and assistant chief, made the motion at a special meeting on Thursday evening to put the plan in place, but called the plan a band-aid that will take care of the situation for only a year.
Woods challenged those in the standing room only crowd Thursday to come up with a long term solution to present to the council next year. Woods, whose term expires at the end of the year, does not plan on being on the council next year.
"I will not run for office. I will not subject myself to what I've gone through this past week," Woods said.
Marty Zauhar, whose term is also up at the end of the year, also indicated he would not run again.
"There will be two seats open. Anyone who thinks they have all the answers can run for office," Zauhar said.
The vote on the motion was three to one, with Bill Troth, Woods and Zauhar voting in favor of the motion and Dwight Varce opposing the motion.
Ron Johnson was not present at the Thursday meeting. He had said on Tuesday, when the special meeting was being scheduled, that he would not be able to attend a meeting later in the week.
The mayor was also absent, so Troth, the mayor pro tem, chaired the meeting.
Ordinances will need to be passed for the city to charge for fees for fire calls, accident calls and building inspections. The plan calls for raising an estimated $36,250 through the fees.
The motion and vote followed a discussion, sometimes heated, regarding the plan to reduce fire department personnel.
Troth started off by explaining that state law prohibits the city from spending more money than it has. He used the analogy of a shopping cart that has more in it than there is money to pay for it, so something has to be put back on the shelf.
The sewer and water departments are operated from the revenue from fees. These fees cannot be used to support general fund operations. In the past, some general fund revenues had been used to supplement the road use fund revenues (from gasoline tax, distributed by the state) for street projects. Ron Strickland, city administrator, said that there is no general fund money going toward street projects in the proposed budget.
Troth suggested that people who don't want to take money from the fire department come up with other suggestions as to what to put back on the shelf.
"Get rid of the city administrator," Norman Rupp suggested.
Jeanette Grant said that the council gave the city administrator an outlandish contract. It was suggested that the city have working department heads.
Dan Morrow suggested that the police department be cut in half.
"Looking at the figures, the savings from the cut in the fire department won't even pay for a street sweeper. If you're going to make cuts, make them deep enough or you'll be back here doing it again next year," Morrow said.
He suggested reducing the number of police officers, including the chief, from eight to four.
Frank Escue said that it isn't right to ask the fire department to absorb the total budget reduction. "You should cut all the departments the same amount," Escue said.
Escue said that he was told by his insurance company that the lack of professional drivers could have an impact on the city's ISO (Insurance Service Office) rating and therefore affect property owners' insurance rates.
Troth said that the people of the city expect around-the-clock coverage from the police department and any reduction in the force would mean not having coverage for part of the week.
Strickland took issue with the characterization of the department heads as not working. He said the department heads perform physical labor.
Strickland distributed a letter at the meeting from Michael Ramirez, senior community mitigation analyst for ISO. The letter stated, "The changes you report will not have sufficient effect to change the present classification of your city. Class 5 will continue to apply."
There was a question as to what the city would do if there was no fire department at all.
Strickland said that the volunteers will continue to serve and that if they didn't, they could be replaced.
Aimee Barritt, county emergency management coordinator, said that untrained people stepping into a hazardous situation could create a problem for the city.
There was a sheet distributed at the meeting listing towns similar to or larger than Cherokee, showing how firefighters are paid or not paid. The arrangements vary widely from all volunteer to all professional.
There was criticism on how the city has handled some matters in the past such as the wrongful termination of a police officer that cost the city money.
Woods said city officials have made mistakes in the past. What needs to be decided is where to go from this point.