MARION COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — The Marion County Fire District will lay off 12 firefighters and paramedics at the end of the year, after voters struck down its attempts to replace an expiring local option levy not once, but twice.
In May, the fire district asked voters for 99 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. After it failed, the district’s existing 71 cent levy from 2016 expired, reducing the department’s annual revenue by $2.4 million a year, according to Fire Chief Kyle McMann.
The department trimmed benefits, furloughed staff, and planned to lay off a battalion chief and two firefighters, McMann said.
Then in November, they asked voters to effectively restore the expired 71 cents per $1,000 for five more years. It failed again, 51.68% to 48.32%. The levies are the first to fail in the department’s history, according to McMann.
“This was a big shock to us,” McMann said.
The Marion County Fire District currently has just over 50 employees serving a population of around 55,000 people spread out over more than 80 square miles, McMann said. They get more than 8,000 calls for service a year. About 80% are medical calls, less than 5% are fire calls, and the rest are comprised of false alarms, people that have fallen down, and other “good intent” calls.
“When you don’t know who else to call you call the fire department and we’ll go out and help you,” McMann said.
When the new service cuts take effect January 1, 2021, two fire stations will close, officials said. Currently, the Labish Center and Macleay stations are mainly used to store equipment.
The loss of 12 employees is what will really affect service levels, McMann said. The district will go from having five staffed units to three, he said, and crews will either take an ambulance for a medical call or a fire engine, depending on the type of emergency.
Response times for calls closer to urban areas are just shy of 8 minutes now, McMann said. Rural areas can range from 10-11 minutes. Those times could increase to 15 minutes next year for residents on the far edges of the district.
“We’re still here to serve, protect people”
Firefighters’ requests for more money sailed to easy victories on election night in cities like Canby and Saint Paul, but despite historic wildfires in Oregon this year, several other fire and public safety levies failed around the state. Many, including McMann, suspect record unemployment and business closures due to the coronavirus pandemic contributed to voters’ decisions.
“You have kids out of school, you have a lot of service and what I call frontline workers just like ourselves that are out of work,” he said, adding that he understands many people are dealing with financial insecurities right now.
McMann has seen the fire district make cuts and adjust during recessions and other hard economic times during his nearly 20 years with the department. But it’s never been close to this magnitude, he said.
“This has taken us back down to about 2007 staffing levels,” he said, “when we had about half the call volume that we do now.”
The levy’s failure is just one of several budgetary blows. Oregon’s enormous Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) gobbles up resources, and slower-than-average growth in assessed property values constricts property tax revenue increases, according to the fire district’s budget.
For now, McMann said the fire district is looking at 2022 for a next attempt at passing a levy.
“We’re still here to serve, protect people,” he said. “We’ll just continue to do the job the best that we can and see what we can learn and set ourselves up for the future.”