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FD3 commissioners hire public relations consultant

Island County Fire District 3, facing an impending budget crisis in the coming years, took another step toward seeking a levy lid lift.

Commissioners approved a contract for $44,750 for Liz Loomis Public Affairs at the fire district’s business meeting Thursday, Nov. 17. The public relations expert will consult the fire district for the coming year as it gets its message out that the district needs money to continue operating without detrimental cuts.

“We feel like we’re at a junction where getting levy lid increase is critical for the success of the department,” said Fire Commissioner Kenon Simmons. “We don’t have anybody in the department to do it professionally and orderly.”

Loomis’ contract includes several public information duties. She will help with a branding project as the district changes its name to South Whidbey Fire EMS.

Fire Chief Rusty Palmer said the district is known by many names, and the board and he want to clean out the clutter of old names.

“We’ve got to let the public know that’s still us,” Palmer said. “She’ll help us focus that message.”

The charges are not to exceed the $44,750 contract, which Simmons said was negotiated down from $59,000.

“It’s not cheap to send out information to all of our taxpayers,” Simmons said.

Palmer said hiring the public relations agency was important because they don’t have those talents in-house. The fire district is mostly volunteer, with only a handful of paid staff.

“The bottom line is, that is not my expertise. I am a firefighter,” Palmer said.

“Social media is not my expertise,” he added.

Spreading information about the district through online social media is important, however. Palmer said Facebook was not the only social networking site to communicate with citizens, and there were plans to use Twitter and other sites.

“There’s a group of taxpayers, there’s a group of citizens, and that’s how they get their information,” Palmer said.

“This is common in all fire departments, the development of a robust communications model which includes Facebook, radio, email, the paper,” he added.

Finding expertise beyond the district’s administrative office in Freeland was necessary, Palmer said.

The fire district also approved contracts for Sherrye Wyatt to work on retention marketing for three years, thanks to a federal 2010 Safer Grant. Wyatt will work to keep volunteer firefighters and recruit new ones. Jerry Beck & Company will handle the technology support, radio consulting and website for the next few years, too.

“They are the field experts, so that’s why we use them that way,” Palmer said.

Part of her job is making sure the district proceeds with a “likely” levy lid lift on the best course possible. Palmer’s caution stems from the fire district’s absence from asking the public for funding for the past 14 years.

“We’ve not gone for a lid lift since 1997,” Palmer said. “We haven’t had that community conversation about tax levies. Our job isn’t really to tell them why to vote for it, our job is to tell them why we need it.”

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