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Jacksonville Fire Dept. expansion on ballot

JACKSONVILLE — Voters will decide May 18 whether they want to increase the size of the town's fire department.

A measure on the ballot would cap the public safety surcharge but add a property tax levy that would more than double the cost of fire and emergency medical service for some property owners.

The City Council placed the measure on the ballot after several years of discussion about how to fund those services and how many people should be employed to staff them. Property owners now pay a $20 monthly surcharge, which city officials say is inadequate to support the 4.5-person department. Department reserves are used to make up the shortfall.

Passage of the measure would create an eight-person fire department, lock in the current surcharge for five years and initiate a tax levy estimated at $1.29 for each $1,000 of assessed valuation. If passed, the measure would take effect in July.

An owner of a home valued at $200,000 would pay $258 per year through the levy and $240 for the surcharge for a total cost of $498 per year. Presently, the same homeowner pays the $20 per month surcharge, or $240 annually.

A majority of department calls are for emergency medical services. Additional personnel would cut response times and increase the number of calls the department can handle. Neighboring emergency service agencies provide backup during busy times.

City residents such as Russ Kennedy oppose the measure.

"My thought is that every government entity — city, county, state and federal — should be ... reducing costs and head count and salaries," Kennedy said. "If they want to increase costs in certain departments, such as the fire department, they ought to be reducing costs in other departments to compensate."

Kennedy said adding staff would add about $200,000 in annual payroll costs while noting that levy alone will raise $420,000 per year.

He rates medical response as good.

"I respect their desire to have an A-plus service rating, but a B-minus is adequate," said Kennedy.

Others, such as Art Krueger, support the levy.

"At this point, I feel it's essential that it pass," said Krueger. "We do not have other choices, but we need to consider it a temporary fix."

Krueger said the need to go to a vote on the issue is a red-flag warning about past management and decision-making, but he still supports the levy. Changes in rules and regulations require more sophisticated training for firefighters, but the city missed grants to fund the training and did not take care of essentials, he said.

Should the measure fail, the City Council could decide to increase the surcharge. The fee would need to increase to $31 per month ($372 annually) to support the department. To fund an eight-person department, the charge would need to go to $45 per month ($540 annually).

City officials considered joining Jackson County Fire District No. 3, which already includes Central Point, Eagle Point, White City, Gold Hill and neighboring rural areas. The fire district rejected that option in July 2009, saying it would not be economical.

The City Council in January proposed an 11-person fire department, but scaled back that idea after citizens opposed the cost. Only fire services are financed with the surcharge.

The measure does not address the need for a new fire station. The existing building would not be safe in the event of an earthquake.