Speedy fire district meeting skirts money issues
By Meg Olson
Community members were at the last fire district #5 meeting with questions about the district�s finances and policies, but fire commission chair Jesse Lofquist and acting commissioner Davea Fisher weren�t much in the mood to talk about it.
Fisher and Lofquist are the only ones left on the dais after the resignation in December of John Fisher and Don Frantz absent for a holiday projected to last several months. Lofquist would have been on his own if not for an emergency meeting held December 15. At that meeting Davea Fisher, then recording secretary, was appointed to replace her husband on the board until March.
At the January 16 meeting of the board Bruno Moras asked if reports in the January All Point Bulletin of a crunch in fire department finances were true. �Not completely,� Lofquist answered. �Fire districts all over the country are challenged with a shortfall of funds. We constantly strive to provide the highest level of service with the dollars available.� Lofquist did not specify the inaccuracy; however, all figures reported in the January edition of the All Point Bulletin were taken from budget documents released by North Whatcom Fire and Rescue Services (NWFRS), of which the Point Roberts fire district is part. �Revenues are $192,000 and expenditures are $304,000,� said Martin Mansfield. �How is that not a problem?� The NWFRS budget summary for the fire district prepared by NWFRS finance director Kent McLelland projects expenditures of $292,000. Projected tax revenues are $192,000 but revenues also include lease payments of $14,000 from bingo operations and $18,000 from the Wellness Clinic and drawing $50,000 from department reserves.
�That�s not the purpose of this meeting,� Lofquist said. The bulk of the meeting was instead devoted to the minutiae of the previous month�s bills. Fisher and Lofquist questioned close to a dozen specific expenditures, from legal costs shared among the three member districts of NWFRS to a $400 bill from an office supply company for file cabinets. �It just looked like a lot of paper clips to me.� There was also discussion about working with the department of labor and industries on an exhaust problem in the station and Fisher presented the results of Internet research on purchasing a glass case for posting notices at the Benson Road fire station. �There has been some concern there be an official place where fire department news is posted,� she said. Joyce Kiniski was also appointed as the new recording secretary.
Lofquist announced that letters had been sent to the three parties who submitted bids to purchase the Julius fire station on Gulf Road. He said the board had decided to accept the bid from the water district for $90,099 and sent the district a letter outlining the fire departments terms and conditions of sale. According to minutes of the December 15 emergency meeting the board made the decision at that time.
The letter received by the water district suggested a closing date for the sale of the station on or before March 1 and set two conditions. The first is the property is to be sold as is. The second is the fire department is permitted to continue to park vehicles in the station for up to two years or until the Benson Road fire station is renovated.
District manager Dan Bourks said commissioners would discuss the conditions of sale at their next meeting. �I want to forward everything to our attorney,� Bourks said. He was skeptical that the water district could legally pay for a building with public funds and then allow another entity to use it. �You can�t gift public monies so I assume they�d have to pay rent.� The next highest bidder for the property, the Point Roberts Parks and Recreation District, could forseeably face the same issue.
At their January 16 meeting the fire district board also signed the lease of a portion of the fire station to the Point Roberts Wellness Clinic. There was no discussion but Lofquist made a statement before he and Fisher unanimously approved the lease. �I have had the opportunity to be involved in this process and I approve of it,� he said.
Lofquist also announced a tightening of the district�s policy for public information requests. �All requests will be made in writing,� he said. �The board will not accept handwritten, telephone or email requests.� A written copy of the district�s policy was not available.
The policy is a change from that under previous administration and contravenes the state Open Public Records Act. The act requires agencies to make all public records available for inspection and copying during their regular office hours, to publish and display rules of policy and procedure. Public records must be available from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday if an agency has office hours of less than 30 hours a week.
Agencies are further directed to adopt and enforce �reasonable rules and regulations� that provide �the fullest assistance to inquirers and the most timely action possible on requests,� and are required to �honor requests by mail,� with no specification to what form it is submitted in. Agencies have five days to respond to a request for a document.
Lofquist allowed further public comments at the close of the meeting and there were several questions about putting the facility in the fire station. �Why is it coming here at a premium of $800 a month,� asked Tom Hollett. �The whole exercise of the Wellness Clinic was very complex,� Lofquist answered. �It required the fire department to be involved and along those lines the most practical place for it to be was here.�
As the questions swung back to financial issues and how the sale of the Julius Station was being handled, commissioners clammed up again. �I�m not going to get into this conversation at this time,� Lofquist said. �If there is a concern on the part of the public I encourage them to write them and send them to commissioners.�