CERT, firefighters face cuts

Members of the Community Emergency Response Team pleaded with the Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee not to cut the job of the person who has built the CERT program into one of the most active in the nation.

CERT Coordinator Lucy Edwards is in danger of losing her job, along with two firefighter/paramedics, if the Budget Committee approves proposed cuts to the Ashland Fire & Rescue budget.

That committee will begin making decisions next week about what to cut and what to save for the entire city government.

The fire department's budget would drop from $5.1 million this fiscal year to $4.9 million in the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Born after a major flood in 1997, Ashland's CERT program graduated its first class of residents trained to handle emergencies in 1999. Hundreds have passed through training, with 200 active participants today, Edwards said.

She said Ashland's CERT program may have the highest number of active participants per capita in the nation.

If Edwards loses her job, the CERT program would continue, although at a less robust level, under the guidance of Edwards' assistant, fire officials said.

Resident Valerie Muroki, a CERT member, recently went with other CERT members to staff a telephone hotline set up by Jackson County to answer questions about swine flu.

"There are many of us ready to step forward at a moment's notice," she said on Thursday at a Budget Committee meeting.

CERT members have staffed Ashland's emergency shelters that open overnight when temperatures dip to life-threatening levels. They are trained to deal with a variety of emergencies, such as floods or wildfires that could sweep down from the forested mountains of the Ashland Watershed.

Although Edwards has secured several grants worth up to $50,000 each to build the CERT program, those funds can't be used to save her position. The funds cover her assistant and equipment, but the city of Ashland pays the costs of Edwards' job.

Citizens' Budget Committee member Dennis Slattery asked firefighters at the meeting whether they believe in the CERT program.

EMS Division Chief Greg Case said the hundreds of people who have been trained through CERT would be available to augment emergency personnel staffing if a disaster struck.

"In the 1997 flood, we had numerous volunteers and no one to coordinate them," he said.

Division Chief of Fire and Life Safety Margueritte Hickman said the program is "extremely valuable."

"It's given tools and empowered citizens to take care of themselves in emergencies," she said.

In addition to weighing whether to cut Edwards' job, the Budget Committee is also faced with laying off two firefighter/paramedics. The fire department already has one vacant firefighter/paramedic position and a vacant operations chief position that would not be filled under the proposed budget.

The proposed city-wide budget of $80.9 million includes a property tax increase of only 6 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $12.90 for the owner of a home at Ashland's median assessed value of $225,000. That increase is part of a voter-approved levy to help fund the Ashland Public Library.

Saving the CERT Coordinator's job would cost an extra $9.45 per year in property taxes for the owner of a home assessed at $225,000. Assessed values are significantly below market values because of property tax limitations approved by state voters.

Saving the jobs of two firefighter/paramedics would cost that homeowner an extra $21.14 per year in property taxes.

The total cost in salaries and benefits for the CERT Coordinator and two firefighter/paramedics is $252,000.

The fire department is shouldering $102,160 worth of the coming fiscal year's $1.4 million Ashland Fiber Network debt payment. AFN will pay $356,000 on its debt.

Launched in the late 1990s, AFN piled up $15.5 million worth of debt before the city privatized the money-losing cable television side of the enterprise in 2006 while keeping the more lucrative Internet side.

Interim Fire Chief Larry Langston said with two fewer firefighter/paramedics, staffing of fire crews would drop from seven people to six people. Rather than having a person available for incident command to handle a major situation, all hands would have to be used on the ground, he said.

"That puts the fire department right on the ragged edge of safety," Langston said.

He said the fire department has nothing left to cut in its budget except personnel. Langston said there's not even enough reserve money to deal with unforeseen situations such as an engine's transmission breaking.

The department has cut supplies, delayed replacing radios, reduced training and cut the amount of times a fire engine will go out with an ambulance, he said.

"We can't reduce anywhere else. We've got to go to staffing," Langston said.

Meanwhile, the Ashland Police Department is facing a variety of cuts as well, including leaving a vacant police officer position unfilled and cutting a police records clerk to half-time. The cost of restoring those positions would be $117,300.

The police department is paying $111,896 of AFN's debt in the coming fiscal year.

Budget Committee member and Ashland City Councilor Greg Lemhouse, who works as a police officer in Medford, said the actual impacts of cuts to Ashland fire and police personnel wouldn't be known until the town has a wildfire, flood or major criminal incident.

"When it happens, we'll know," Lemhouse said.

Resident and Budget Committee member Arlen Gregorio added, "It's not a good time to find out, unfortunately."

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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