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Levy timing, spending questioned

Last week, Gaston Fire’s former public information officer raised a number of questions on his website, kenbilderback.com, about the Gaston Fire levy now before voters.

Primarily, Ken Bilderback would like more specifics on how the district will spend the $200,000 to $216,000 per year the levy will raise, given that it seems to have completed all its necessary big-rig purchases over the past five years.

Other than operational costs, Gaston Fire Chief Roger Mesenbrink says the biggest item on the upcoming levy agenda is a roughly 1,900-square-foot overnight space that would connect to the back of the current fire station and would include four small bunk rooms with wall lockers, gender-separated showers, a laundry room, a day room and a small kitchen area.

As a commercial structure, it would be more expensive than if it were residential because of stricter, more costly regulations related to seismic standards, wiring, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other things, said Mesenbrink. The architect of the original building — who still lives in Portland — did some drawings and gave a range of cost estimates, with $350,000 on the low side, he said.

Gaston Fire is the only western Washington County district without overnight quarters, Mesenbrink said. Forest Grove, Cornelius and Banks all have them.

The overnight space would allow firefighter volunteers — and interns from Forest Grove’s program if the two agencies partner in some way — to staff the station for nighttime calls. That could help lower response time from 10 minutes to three minutes and would supplement the small core of three or four nearby volunteers.

In a survey taken a few years ago, nearly all Gaston’s volunteers said they’d be willing to staff the station a few nights a month if beds were available, according to Lt. Training Officer Clay Davis.

The volunteers are a main concern for Bilderback, who said he’d like to see levy money improve conditions for volunteer firefighters/EMTs and reflect the department’s gradual shift to a mainly emergency-medical focus.

According to Davis, nearly 70 to 75 percent of the station’s current calls are for medical problems. Structure fires account for 10 to 12 percent of the calls, with the rest going to motor-vehicle accidents, wildland fires, animal rescue and more.

The ambulance-like Rescue 11 which Gaston Fire bought used several years ago was finally licensed by the state last Wednesday, turning it into “Medic 11” and giving Gaston’s three volunteer paramedics the authority to administer Advanced Life Support (ALS) if they’re able to respond to a call.

If not, the vehicle is still staffed for Basic Life Support and can transport patients if a Metro West ambulance is detained by more than 10 or 15 minutes, taking them to the nearest hospital or intercepting the delayed ambulance.

Future improvements to emergency-medical care will be up to whoever takes over after Mesenbrink retires, said Bilderback, who wonders why the levy renewal is coming before voters now, when the current levy won’t expire until June 2015 and the management will likely change well before then.

“As a taxpayer, I would wish that the levy vote had been postponed until November to provide time for new management to outline its strategies going forward,” Bilderback wrote.

Mesenbrink said management won’t have changed by November and the district can’t wait for a vote till next spring because if the levy renewal failed, fire officials would have only a short time to dramatically adjust their plans.

Still, Bilderback wrote, “I would be willing to pay MORE in taxes if I could trust how the money is being spent.”

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