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Contract Dispute Frays Fire Agency Relations

Will a new station be built in greater White Salmon area?

A contract dispute between the White Salmon Fire Department and Klickitat County Fire District No. 3 may soon lead to the construction of a new fire station north of White Salmon.

For more than a decade, White Salmon firefighters have furnished direct fire protection and suppression services to a portion of the area within Fire District No. 3. The agreement between the fire district and the city of White Salmon identifies the area of coverage as running "south of a line running east and west through the Klickitat County rock pit at the head of Bald Mountain on Highway 141, all lands laying along Snowden Road to its intersection with Wnuk Road, and the length of Wnuk Road."

In return, Fire District No. 3 has paid the city of White Salmon $15,244 annually.

In October 2004, however, then-Mayor Linda Jones determined that Fire District No. 3 should be paying more for the fire coverage, based on costs the city of White Salmon incurred while serving the area.

"An analysis of the Fire Department's budget, the historic level of services provided to the district, and the tax proceeds received by the district all indicate that the level of compensation provided in the 1992 contract is now insufficient," Jones wrote in a letter to Fire District No. 3 on Oct. 21, 2004.

"They've been paying $15,000 for White Salmon to cover Pucker Huddle to Bald Mountain and the schools," said White Salmon Fire Chief Bill Hunsaker. "The tax valuations have been going up since then. We felt they should pay us more money because they are collecting more from that area."

Hunsaker said the White Salmon Fire Department spent $48,000 in 2004 to answer calls in the contract area within the boundaries of Fire District No. 3.

Mayor Jones proposed increasing the annual compensation paid to the city to $42,483.

In a responding letter to Fire Chief Hunsaker, Fire District No. 3 Commissioner Arthur House said the new figure was not acceptable.

"The commissioners held a meeting to review and discuss the negotiations of the fire protection contract, and upon conclusion have agreed that the original offer to renew the contract at the current rate of $15,244 was more than adequate for the area covered," House wrote on Feb. 11, 2005.

The two sides have since remained at an impasse over the issue.

Jim vonMosch, captain of the Cherry Lane Fire Station, said the fire district's commissioners resented the way the issue was originally approached by Mayor Jones.

"The whole thing started off because the fire commissioners were grossly insulted by Linda Jones' letter," vonMosch said. "They objected to the peremptory tone of the letter. My personal objection is that the White Salmon Fire Department has a budget of less than $55,000 a year, and they are asking us for $42,000."

According to budget figures available from White Salmon City Hall, the White Salmon Fire Department had a budget of $43,308 for 2005, and is tentatively projected to have a budget of $47,464 for 2006.

Husum Fire Chief Jerry Jones said that with compensation costs that high, it made more sense for Fire District No. 3 to use the money to expand its capabilities in the area that has been covered by White Salmon's Fire Department.

"We have been paying $15,000, and that's too much money in my opinion," Jones said. "When the contract expired, they came up with a request asking us to pay $42,000. We couldn't do that, so we decided to build a satellite station. That would be cheaper for us, and we could pay it off in a year or two."

Jones said the fire district could provide adequate coverage in the areas that have previously been served through White Salmon.

"We can do a better job than they do right now, and we have the people to man it and the equipment," Jones explained. "It's our area. We can build our own station without a lot of controversy. At some point, a lot of that area could be annexed into White Salmon, but until that time, we have a right to do what we want."

Hunsaker said he thought a new station was unnecessary.

"They want to build a station in the Pucker Huddle area, but we think that's a duplication of service provided by White Salmon and Skyline," Hunsaker said.

Hunsaker added that he didn't know where the situation would go from here.

"We'll try to get this resolved, but it's up to them. I've been to their meetings and they've put me off," he said. "We'd love the $15,000. The revenue from Fire District No. 3 goes into our budget for the purchase of new equipment and to upgrade our fire station."

Jones said he did not see how the contract could be maintained.

"I think it's pretty much out the window," Jones said. "We've done a lot of work trying to resolve this. We tried to negotiate several times, and they'd come back with, we'd have to be responsible to their firemen if they are out on a call. We just couldn't do it. I feel they're trying to control our budget."

Jones added that he hoped there was no long-term damage in the relationship between the two departments.

"It's just a shame," Jones said. "You've got to work together. We're all in here to help others."

Hunsaker said White Salmon's firefighters would continue to respond to any fire calls in the district.

"Fire District No. 3 is not negotiating with us," Hunsaker said. "But we are still responding for mutual aid. If there is a fire, we will go if called. We will continue to want to work together. We don't want any bad blood. Even if the district has not paid dues, if there is an incident, we will respond."

Jones said that the fire district anticipated negotiating a contract to build the new station within about two weeks.

"We'll probably have it up and going within a couple months," he said.

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