Budget Committee burns Fire Department with $288,000 loss of funds

Chipping away at the foundation is not always wise.

But that's what the Astoria Budget Committee did Tuesday night, cutting the budgets of two departments many Astoria residents agree forms the foundation of city services.

Approved reductions included more than $288,000 from the Astoria Fire Department's requested budget and nearly $30,000 from the Astoria Police Department.

Total city revenue is expected to reach $5,365,000 during the next budget year, which begins July 1. With various departments requesting a total of $5,930,000, the budget crunch eventually reached the city's emergency services.

"These two departments have taken as many hits as they can take," said Councilor Loran Matthews. "If public safety is our No. 1 priority, we can see we're going to be in trouble."

Tim Vonseggern of Nehalem, a career firefighter in Portland, offered a similar perspective. "The citizens of Astoria deserve a safe city," he said. "Public safety should come first."

Fighting fire

Fire Chief Lenard Hansen remains optimistic about his department's ability to cope with budget cuts - despite the fact that firefighting bore greater cuts than any other city service. The reductions will mean laying off four full-time staff members, including a lieutenant, a driver engineer and two firefighters. Hansen reassured the committee that services will continue at nearly the same level, estimating only 3.5 percent of the department's calls will be affected by reduced staff.

But this 3.5 percent represents the most serious emergencies the department responds to, contends Lt. Joe Gallino. For safety reasons, firefighters only enter burning buildings in pairs while a second pair waits outside as backup. With four career firefighters cut, Gallino believes the department will have trouble rounding up the needed staff to respond. Waiting for four firefighters who have the required training to enter a burning building could put lives and property at risk, Gallino said.

Hansen hopes some of these staffing gaps will be filled by volunteers. At the same time, Hansen admits recruiting and retraining volunteers is a serious challenge.

"My plea to you and the rest of the community is this: We still need volunteers," Hansen told the committee. Next year's reduced roster will include about 11 paid firefighters and 12 volunteers. Of the 12, only six are qualified to handle interior fires. The department's goal of maintaining a minimum of 20 volunteers has never been met, Hansen said.

"My goal is to have a volunteer force of 30 to 40, but we haven't filled 20," he said.

While a lack of volunteer firefighters is a common problem throughout the United States, Hansen believes Astoria's population detracts from the pool of possible candidates.

"We're a city of older demographics," he said, adding Astoria's aging population also adds to the department's increasing volume of calls requiring emergency medical help.

Of the 859 calls the department responded to last year, nearly 60 percent were to help with medical emergencies.

Mayor Willis Van Dusen commended the department for its reputation for quick medical emergency responses, but challenged Hansen to get the word out about the department's volunteer staffing needs.

"We are," Hansen said. "Send anybody down. We're tagging everybody."

Fighting crime

While the Fire Department faces staff cuts this year, previous budget cuts reduced police services to a bare minimum over the last 11 years, said Astoria Police Chief Rob Deu Pree. Since 1991, the department has cut the equivalent of five officers.

The reduced staff puts Astoria's population to police officer ratio at the lowest in Clatsop County, with 1.6 officers per 1,000 Astoria residents. This compares with 2.9 officers in Seaside and 4.9 officers in Cannon Beach.

During the next budget year, Astoria police staffing will remain intact, with cuts mostly affecting the purchase and repair of equipment.

As the department gets whittled down each year, crime in Astoria has been on the rise. Between 2000 and 2001, crimes in Astoria jumped 27 percent, according to statistics provided by Deu Pree. Comparatively, the chief said crime in the state of Oregon is staying even or decreasing.

As for why crime in Astoria is on the rise, Deu Pree said economics is key.

"We've become more attractive to lower-income kinds of things," he said. "While most low-income people are not criminals, almost all criminals are lower income."

Although $28,770 was shaved off Deu Pree's departmental request, Budget Committee citizen member Jim Wilkins pointed out the reduced police budget approved by the committee is still an increase of nearly $125,000 over last year's budget.

"How do you justify your budget taking a greater percentage of the general fund this year?" Wilkins asked.

Deu Pree said the additional funds will help maintain existing personnel and meet contractual obligations.

But Wilkins was unsatisfied.

"As you glom on to more, the Fire Department is going to get less and less," he said. "You're going to supplant the Fire Department."

Wilkins called on the Police Department to do more to provide the medical emergency services the Fire Department may struggle to provide in the next year.

Deu Pree assured Wilkins his department was taking steps in that direction. "We've been looking into that the last couple of months and gathering information," he said.

The police and fire department budgets approved by the committee go before the City Council for final approval. The committee's final meeting is 7 tonight at City Hall. Public testimony is welcomed.