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Jacksonville forced to find new emergency options

JACKSONVILLE — City officials will look for another way to maintain fire protection and emergency services now that Jackson County Fire District No. 3 has determined it will not be financially viable to annex the town into the district.

The fire district and the city have explored consolidation since April. Jacksonville currently levies a $20 monthly surcharge per home to support fire services and faces the need to construct a new fire station to replace an old structure that does not meet earthquake-resistant standards.

"Unfortunately the district staff and I cannot develop an option for annexation of Jacksonville that is in the best interests of the patrons of Fire District 3," District Chief Dave Hard said. "It's a direct reflection of the economic times that every government agency faces."

Hard said every option considered would have cost more than the revenue produced by annexation. All options would have included staffing with paramedics. Currently Jacksonville's fire department has emergency medical technicians, who have less training than paramedics.

Hard presented his findings to the district's board of directors, but they took no formal action. They would act only if the Jacksonville City Council requested annexation.

Voters in the city and the fire district would have had to approve any annexation proposal.

"It just didn't pencil out for them," Mayor Bruce Garrett said. "They were going to offer a higher level of medical services and at one point offered to do a new fire station in two years. There was just a lot of capital exposure out there that they didn't see coming back anytime soon."

Hard said annexation might be a possibility in three to five years, but Jacksonville would have to take the lead. The district's last annexations occurred in 2001 when Central Point and Eagle Point joined the district.

Possible options will be considered when the city's Public Safety Committee meets on Aug. 4. Councilman Chris Gilman, committee chairman, said he would favor placing an operating levy on the May 2010 ballot. Construction of a new fire station should be treated separately, he added.

"I got a lot of feedback from people...trying to get out of the public safety surcharge, " Gilman said. "We might have a potential to get (a levy) passed, but we have to do our homework first."

In another fire safety development, the City Council voted 5-2 Tuesday to eliminate the Public Safety Department and create separate police and fire departments. The council had combined the two operations in August 2007 under Police Chief Dave Towe, who will remain in that position. Firefighter Devin Hull was named interim fire chief. Personnel levels will remain the same.

"A levy might be more appealing to the voters if there's a clear split between police and fire," Gilman said.

The separation might also make it easier to secure grants for a new fire station, he added.

"There was no discussion with the public. It was simply tossed out there and it was a done deal," said Mayor Garrett, who voted against the separation along with Councilman John Dodero.

Gilman said he had raised the issue at the June 16 council meeting and that it was on the agenda for two weeks prior to Tuesday's session.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboom8929@charter.net.