Wednesday, December 25, 2013/lk
OKANOGAN Over the objections of firefighters, the City Council cut the fire chief position to half time and, in doing so, balanced the 2014 budget.
Firefighters packed the council chambers last Tuesday evening to protest the Dec. 10 firing of Chief Gordon Hennigs and urge the council to keep the position fully funded.
Hennigs maintains he wasn’t told why he was terminated. Mayor Michael Blake has refused to say why he let the chief go after 17 years on the job.
Blake, in his last meeting as mayor, and the council listened as Christian Johnson, representing the firefighters, read a letter from Okanogan Volunteer Fire Department President Ken Davis in support of Hennigs.
The city and the Okanogan portion of Fire District No. 3 have long shared a paid chief. The association is the business arm of the department and elects its own officers, including a chief.
“We are pleased to inform you that during our Dec. 4 election meeting, Gordon Hennigs was unanimously re-elected to serve as our fire chief for the year 2014,” Davis’ letter to Mayor-elect Jon Culp said.
After meeting with Blake following Hennigs’ firing, the firefighters “weighed several other factors such as Gordon’s ability to make critical decisions in the face of chaos, then we unanimously reaffirmed our Dec. 4 decision and will continue to trust Gordon with our lives,” the Dec. 12 letter continued.
“We encourage your support of Gordon when making your 2014 appointments of city offices.”
Hennigs was among the 15-20 firefighters at the council meeting, but did not speak.
In a separate letter, Davis encouraged elected city officials to continue full-time funding for the chief’s position.
“The volunteers have serious concerns that members of the council are considering reducing the position of the fire chief to a half-time position without seeking the consultation of the (fire association) board of directors when such an action will adversely affect our day-to-day operations of the department,” the letter said.
Davis cited the coordination and management of training and call hours, reports, safety and keeping up with current fire practices.
First Assistant Chief Scott Duncan, who is serving as interim chief, assured the council the crew will continue to provide service to the city, with safety as its first priority followed by property protection.
“We want the council to act responsibly,” he said.
Davis’ letter also said the Washington State Ratings Bureau takes staffing, training, fire code enforcement and other things into consideration when setting protection classifications, which directly impact property owners’ fire insurance rates.
“Before any decision is made on the matter, the board of directors invites the appropriate council committee to meet with them and further discuss this matter,” he wrote.
Blake and the council had no response, but later in the meeting, as the council was considering the 2014 budget, Councilman Jerry Paul proposed reducing the fire chief position to half time for a savings of $40,100 in wages, benefits and related costs.
At that point, the proposed budget was about $10,000 out of balance.
Councilman Ken Thompson, during a brief council discussion of the proposal, called the warning about the ratings bureau “a very broad, general statement. What’s the true impact?”
He asked if any of the firefighters could say exactly how having a half-time chief would affect ratings. When no one answered, he said, “then I assume it won’t have much of an impact.”
On a 6-0 vote, with Councilwoman Denise Varner abstaining, the council decided to cut back the position.
Varner said she would not vote because her husband, Duncan, is a firefighter. As first assistant chief, he’s also the interim chief until a new chief is hired.
The council then adopted the $6.8 million budget for 2014 on a 7-0 vote.
Later, during a public comment period near the end of the meeting, firefighter Budd Featherly said no one answered because they don’t know what the impact will be on fire ratings.
“The burden is on you, as elected officials, to find out,” he said. “I would hope you’d come to us. We can work together and come up with a better solution than a half-time position.”
At the end of the meeting, the council adopted a resolution praising Blake for his 14 years as mayor. In his final mayor’s report, Blake said the mayor “gets a lot of credit for things he doesn’t do. There’s also a lot of disparaging the mayor doesn’t deserve.”
But, he said, he enjoyed being mayor and will miss it.
“It’s been quite an interesting ride,” he said, then adjourned the meeting.
Almost immediately, Hennigs’ wife, Patty, approached Blake and tore into him for firing her husband.
“You can kiss my hiney,” she said, accusing him of ruining the holidays for her family. “The city’s better off without a mayor like you.”
Culp and Thompson later said they didn’t think it was premature for the council to cut the position in half.
“I think it’s not the professional staff level that matters” in setting insurance ratings, Culp said.
Thompson said the council needed to balance the budget and if fire insurance rates do rise beyond what the council feels comfortable having residents pay, the position could be revisited.