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Tough Choice For Rural Fire
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The Valley Home fire station, pictured, is one of the two rural stations that will experience rotating brown-outs as a result of budget constraints as of Oct.1. Knights Ferry is the other station that will be affected. - photo by Kim Van Meter/The Leader

Nobody can say they didn’t see the writing on the wall — brown outs at Valley Home and Knights Ferry fire stations are coming as of tomorrow, Thursday, Oct. 1.

There’s simply not enough money in the budget to keep all three rural districts open 24/7, said new Oakdale Rural Fire Chief Lee Winton.

It’s a sad fact and the decision will likely spark debate and hard feelings as the embattled rural district struggles to keep afloat in a dwindling economy but Winton didn’t feel there was a choice.

“This decision was fiscally driven,” he said. “We have to control our budgetary expenditures, especially in overtime.”

In a previous story, former deputy chief Rob Hoyer stated that the district spent $176,000 in overtime costs last year but had only budgeted $150,000. This year, there’s even less, with only $100,000 for overtime.

“Obviously, this is not something the board wanted to do but it’s just not possible given our current situation,” Winton said, adding that the rural district is not exempt from state raiding, which many special districts have been struggling with. “We’re in the fine line period. We’re spending money we don’t have. The district has to work within the budget. The whole state is suffering. These are difficult times and we’re trying to make ends meet.”

In July, board members adopted the final 2009-10 budget with a total operating budget of $1.7 million. Winton stated, in his experience it takes $1 million to run a fire station full time.

“Even if you cut that number in half, the math still doesn’t add up to be able to fund three full time stations,” Winton said.

Which left Winton and the board with an unpopular decision, particularly for the communities of Valley Home and Knights Ferry. The Oakdale station will remain open full time.

Oakdale Rural Fire District covers approximately 224 square miles but with the addition of the Division One North Area it brings the total square acreage to 320 with three stations in Oakdale, Valley Home and Knights Ferry to service the entire area.

Winton said the new plan would rotate service to the outlying stations as equally as possible.

In addition to the brown-outs, three limited term firefighters were given their pink slips. As a condition of their hiring, the limited term employees knew the state of the budget was precarious and if push came to shove the district would have to terminate their employment. Even so, Winton admitted it’s never easy to let someone go, particularly in this tough economy, which is something he had to do the second week on the job.

“We’re committed to not laying off any more personnel,” Winton said. “All major fire departments are going through this. There are hiring freezes, brown-outs, pay cuts, early buy-outs, etc. Everyone is in the same situation. And it’s going to take a while to come out of this.”

The rural district and the city department have a mutual aid agreement and Winton stated everyone is determined to maintain that continuing support during these fiscal challenges.

“We’re all scrambling to try and make this work and we rely on mutual aid,” Winton said. “We’re prepared to support them (Oakdale City Fire) when needed and they’ll support us when needed.”