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Fire board candidates sound off on the department's future at a public debate
Taxes and on-Island volunteerism were both hot topics at Wednesday night's Fire Commissioner Candidates Debate, where four candidates for two seats on the Vashon Island Fire & Rescue's board of commissioners faced off before a crowd of about 75.
The mood at the event, sponsored by Voice of Vashon and The Beachcomber, was light as Susan McCabe provided playful moderation and the candidates remained civic and even-tempered. All questions at the 90-minute debate, which was also filmed by Voice of Vashon, were posed by audience members who stood at microphones in a packed classroom at the Penny Farcy Training Center across from the fire station on Bank Road.
And while the candidates for the two six-year terms often agreed in principal, they strove to set themselves apart, particularly in their opening comments to the crowd.
Joe Ulatoski, who is challenging incumbent Candy McCullough in a very public campaign for position four, for instance, painted himself as someone who would bring a wider perspective to the board, which he said is currently reactive rather than proactive. Ulatoski, 84, is a retired Army brigadier general who about a decade ago helped start VashonBePrepared.
“I think we've got to change the direction of the board and we've got to be more proactive,” he said.
McCullough, who is looking to retain position 4, pointed to her 30 years of experience in firefighting, climbing the ranks both as a VIFR volunteer and Boeing firefighter.
Appointed to the fire board in June after Gayle Sommers resigned to spend time travelling, McCullough, 53, said that as a commissioner she provides the board “essential and relevant insight” to the department.
Deborah Brown, who is challenging incumbent Ron Turner in a contest that so far has not included a public campaign, called herself a “straight shooter,” and, like Ulatoski, said the board should be more proactive.
A 15-year VIFR volunteer and head of the department's Explorers program, Brown, 52, said she has built connections all over the Island through her many paid and volunteer positions on Vashon.
“I understand this community. … I don't represent one particular group,” she said.
Turner, for his part, said his time on the board is proof of his qualifications. Turner, who is 61 and a retired Coast Guard senior chief, said he has not sat on his hands over the last half-dozen years but been a strict policy enforcer and played a part in the department as it turned its image around.
“I want to be reelected because, by golly, we're doing a good job, and who wouldn't want to be a part of it,” he said.
Questions posed the candidates ran the gamut: Several were curious how the they would handle potential budget cuts or increase volunteerism. One Islander, early in the night, asked about the gender discrimination suit the department lost a few years ago. Another asked if anything could be done about the paucity of fire hydrants on Vashon.
Much of the discussion focused on VIFR's financial picture — an issue of import, candidates and questioners noted, because of the uncertain future of the King County EMS (Emergency Medical Services) levy. The EMS levy doesn't expire until the end of 2013, but all four expressed concern about the situation, noting that if voters failed to pass another levy it could prove disastrous for Vashon.
Turner, for instance, said that because of the down economy, he is concerned some cities may choose to implement their own EMS levy rather than continue to give to smaller cities in the county.
For years Vashon's EMS funding has been subsidized by other parts of the King County, as Islanders pay about $750,000 to the county-wide property tax and the department receives about $2 million in return — half of VIFR's total budget.
“I don't know if there's anything we can do about it,” he said. Adamantly against a new Vashon tax, Turner said that if the department were to lose funding, Islanders or insurance providers may have to pay for EMS transports that are currently free.
Brown, who is challenging Turner, said that losing the levy would likely translate into longer response times on Vashon. She added that her grant writing skills could come into play to bring more money into the department. She also said she had the communication skills to lobby the county on Vashon's behalf, “being that voice, that face so we are a presence for those that make that decision,” she said.
Ulatoski said there should be no new taxes unless lives are in danger. Like Brown, he said the board should be more proactive with King County. Ulatoski, who has worked with King County officials through his involvement with VashonBePrepared, said the first step should be to “get a hold of elected officials.”
McCullough agreed that the department may have to ultimately charge for transports, but added that increased volunteerism could possibly make up for any paid positions that are lost.
“Maybe (we could) find a corps of volunteers who want to do transports again,” she said.
When questioned about how the candidates would make cuts if the department were to lose a large chunk of its funding, all four gave more or less the same answer — that equipment replacement was the first thing to go.
And when one audience member pointed out that commissioners are paid $90 for each twice-monthly meeting they attend, the candidates gave vague replies. All suggested they would do the job for nothing, but none committed to turning down the per diem if they remained on or were elected to the board.
When the state a few years ago increased fire commissioners' per diem from $90 to $104, Turner waived the increase along with the rest of the board at the time and continues to receive $90. McCullough accepted the $104 per diem when she joined the board this summer.
Toward the beginning of the night, some candidates set themselves apart in their opinion about long-range plans for the department.
Ulatoski said all decisions should be made according to the dictates of an overarching plan.
“Where is the overall plan that governs the department? There is none, and that's what we have to have to move forward and something I advocate,” he said.
McCullough, however, named several plans the department has created in the past, and said tax dollars have been spent to compose “goals and objectives that we may not achieve.”
Rather than create yet another plan, McCullough said the department sound “focus on one or two things in the old plan.”
All candidates listed the recruitment of more on-Island volunteers as one of their top priorities, saying it would work to improve the department's often below-standard response times. However, they had different ideas about how volunteer numbers could be boosted.
McCullough, who recently volunteered to be the board's liaison to the department's recruitment and retention coordinators, believes that the climate at VIFR changed after paid firefighters and paramedics were brought on, which still discourages some from volunteering. “The culture has not embraced local volunteerism the last 15 years.”
Besides saying Islanders should know that the climate has actually improved, McCullough also offered a couple of concrete ideas to gain volunteers. She said former volunteers might be willing to return to service if they didn't have to retake a six-month training course or perhaps the county could recognize a first-responder course some non-volunteers have already taken.
Ulatoski, for his part, said the community simply needs to change its attitude toward volunteers, giving them more “praise and appreciation.” He thinks more volunteers could be recruited by word of mouth.
Brown, running for position one, agreed that some have negative feelings about being a VIFR volunteer. She said the department should make it clear not only that the climate is more positive now, but volunteer expectations are clearer and more structured. She believes that would “go a long way to get people.”
Turner said he was glad to see the department recently bring on the volunteer recruitment and retention coordinators and believed it should go with what he called a “poke and hope” system, explaining it should try different strategies until one worked.
“Americans always get it right, eventually,” he said, prompting laughter from the crowd.
Ballots have been mailed out for the Nov. 8 election and have already arrived at many Vashon homes. To watch the debate online, visit http://www.voiceofvashon.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=108&Itemid=1. It will also be aired on cable channel 21 at a later date.