More litigation filed against former Donald-area volunteer firefighters

by: RENDERING COURTESY THE AURORA RURAL FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT - This artist's rendering illustrates what the Aurora Rural Fire Protection District central station will look like.Six months after gaining wide approval for a five-year operating levy, the Aurora Rural Fire Protection District board of directors is again seeking voter support — this time for a general obligation bond that would cover a number of capital improvements and expenditures.

But not everyone is on board with the district’s plans, as a vocal group of former volunteer firefighters in Donald are publicly opposing the measure.

At least one of the arguments this group submitted to the Marion County voter pamphlet has a sparked a lawsuit from the committee in favor of the bond measure, which alleges the statement contains false information.

The bond measure, if passed, would cost taxpayers an average of 49 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation each year (the owner of a $150,000 home would pay an estimated annual cost of $73.56) and would raise an amount not to exceed $5.885 million.

The lion’s share of the funds would be applied to the construction of a new central fire station — the district’s third — on a 10-acre parcel of land already owned by the district near the intersection of Interstate 5 and Ehlen Road Northeast.

District Chief Rod Yoder said a new headquarters is necessary because the district’s current stations — one in Aurora, one in Donald, both of which are more than 60 years old — are “landlocked” and offer little room to grow.

“We’re really out of room at our present locations, and there’s really no way to expand,” he said.

Greg Leo, member of the fire district board and treasurer of the campaign committee in favor of the measure, said the board has been planning this bond measure for more than a year and determined that a centrally located station — which could more easily serve rural residents throughout the district — made more sense than building a new, larger base in Aurora.

The bond funds would also purchase new fire apparatus for the district, including two new engines, a brush-fire fighting rig and a small water tanker. Leo said the two new engines would replace the district’s oldest engines, which are 29 and 26 years old.

“Those engines are older than most of our firefighters we have going into the fires,” Yoder said.

He said the industry standard is 15 years for the service life of a firefighting vehicle, and even the district’s “newest” engines are three years older than that. He also said the district’s insurance company does not replace engines once they reach 15 years, and will instead pay only actual cash value — about $30,000.

“With a replacement cost of about $425,000, that would leave us in a real bind if one of our engines is ever wrecked,” he said.

However, Frank Stormo — a 25-year veteran volunteer of the fire district, who was dismissed from service in January 2013 — and several other men in the Donald area, wrote objections to the measure in the voter pamphlet, calling it overpriced and unnecessary.

“Those old engines are second-line trucks; they’re only used for fires in fields,” Stormo said. “They’re not first-line trucks. And they’re in good shape. All that equipment is in good shape. They may be old, but if you look at the mileage, it’s not that bad.”

Stormo and other opponents of the measure, including Todd Deaton, Mike Holland and Ocey Grant, also worry that the central location would mean a reduced presence by the district in Donald.

Currently, two of the district’s four full-time employees are based at the Donald station; if the central station is built, all full-time personnel would be relocated there, with the Donald and Aurora stations being occupied primarily by volunteers and students in training.

“They’re neglecting the Donald station,” Stormo alleged. “That’s the main reason we’re opposed to it.”

Legal skirmishes ongoing

Stormo, Deaton, Grant and several others were sued by the district last year on claims that they stole approximately $50,000 in cash and assets that belong to the district and the newly merged district volunteer firefighters association. Stormo and company claim the assets belonged to the Donald Volunteer Firefighters Association, which the district dissolved when it attempted to merge Donald’s association with Aurora’s.

That suit is set for a motions hearing in June, but now, the men are facing new litigation — this time from the committee in favor of the bond measure. Their argument against the measure in the voter pamphlet opens with the statement, “VOTE NO!!! This bond levy will DOUBLE the Fire District Tax assessments for the next 20 Years,” which Leo said is patently false.

“It’s a false material statement; it’s clearly wrong,” he said. “It’s basically like a 34.7 percent increase in actual taxes. It will not double the taxes for 20 years.”

If the measure passes, the committee will be unable to prove damages and will likely drop the suit, but if it fails, Leo said the group could potentially recoup up to $2,500 under state statutes. He said the committee has spent close to $3,500 on the campaign.

“Our intention with the lawsuit is to call this false statement out publicly,” Leo said. “This statement is so outrageously wrong, and we don’t want people to be deceived by it.”

Asked about the new suit, Stormo said the defendants intend to fight, but added he was not permitted to comment publicly on the matter. He directed inquiries to their attorney, David Carlson, of Salem, who did not return a request for comment.

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