Four battle for Fire District 3 commission seat
August 4, 2009 · Updated 4:23 PM
Four candidates with differing views on several key issues are vying for a seat on the Island County Fire District 3 board of commissioners in the Tuesday, Aug. 18, primary election.
The top two vote-getters will face off in the general election Nov. 3.
Mike Helland, of Clinton, is the Position 3 incumbent. He has served for the past 12 years and is seeking a third term, but faces challenges from three candidates with decades of fire-service experience between them and definite ideas about how the volunteer district should be run.
The challengers are Don Carscadden and Frank Mestemacher of Freeland, and former fire district commissioner Gary Gabelein of Clinton.
All four candidates differ on issues such as building and equipment priorities, response times, morale and the recruitment and retention of volunteers, the backbone of the district.
The fire district covers about 66 miles from the South End of the island north to Classic Road between Freeland and Greenbank. Its six stations serve about 16,000 full and part-time residents. The volunteer-based district has six full-time employees, about 100 volunteers and a tax-supported budget of about $1.8 million.
Carscadden, 61, a resident of South Whidbey since 1996, has nearly 34 years in active fire service with Snohomish County, Mountlake Terrace and the Port of Seattle. That service includes 10 years as a volunteer with District 3.
He has owned and operated Island Crane Services in Freeland for the past two years.
Carscadden is most adamant on the subjects of volunteers, a new training facility and the need for a change in administration.
He said volunteer morale is low “because of the way they’ve been treated.”
He said it costs a lot of money to train volunteers, and that both that money and the experience gained is lost when volunteers leave.
“I’d personally go knock on the doors of the volunteers that the district has forced out and ask them to come back,” Carscadden said, “and build the confidence and camaraderie of the volunteers still here.”
Carscadden would also reinstate the six part-time paid firefighter positions eliminated for budget reasons this year.
He added that he would clamp down on “the needless running around” of district vehicles, and would promote the acquisition of vehicles suitable to the rural nature of the island.
Meanwhile, district commissioners have worked toward establishing a new headquarters and training facility on property the district owns at Bayview Corner near Bayview School.
It’s estimated the facility would cost about $1.5 million. Because of the sour economy, commissioners have put off indefinitely asking voters to approve a levy-lid increase to build the facility.
“We need a new central facility, but the Bayview property isn’t it for several reasons, and most of those are financial,” Carscadden said. “It should be based on the firefighters’ needs and the ability to provide service, not fancy administrative offices.”
“Government needs to be responsible and accountable for every taxpayer dollar,” he said. “Whether it’s from taxes or grants, it’s all taxpayer money, which a lot of people in government have forgotten.”
Gabelein, 60, a South Whidbey native and former three-term District 3 fire commissioner, stresses his leadership and financial management experience, as well as his long-time association with the district.
Retired from Washington State Ferries after 28 years as a ferry captain, he and his wife, Janie, run a bed-and-breakfast in the Bayview area.
Gabelein has been involved with District 3 for 38 years as a firefighter, battalion chief, emergency medical technician and instructor, as well as 18 years as commissioner.
“My experience in leadership and financial management and familiarity with South Whidbey, as well as my long-term service with Island County Fire District 3 at many levels, make me the best-qualified candidate,” Gabelein said.
Gabelein retired from the fire district commission to return to active fire service, but said his body is telling him it’s time to hang up his fire hat. He said he’s seeking another term on the commission to stay involved with the district.
Gabelein said he also would reinstate the part-time paid day crew to relieve the pressure on volunteers, many of whom are off-island during the day.
He would place a top priority on recruiting and retaining new volunteers, and the establishment of a central training facility at Bayview, with more emphasis on training facilities and less on office space.
“Providing a qualified training facility within the district will be more cost-effective and time efficient than sending them out of district and off-island,” he said.
As for medical calls, which make up more than 80 percent of the district’s responses, Gabelein said he would emphasize use of smaller medical units rather than fire trucks, which use more fuel and are more costly to maintain.
He said he would enhance recruitment and retention of volunteers by offering training classes at more convenient times and locations.
“I would work with the other board members to provide the best service in the most efficient and cost-effective way,” Gabelein said.
Helland, 53, has been on the District 3 commission for the past 12 years. He has been a South Whidbey resident for 34 years, and has been manager of the Clinton Water District for the past 17 years.
He said he stands on his record as a fire commissioner and what he said was a 97-percent approval rating received from a questionnaire distributed to district residents.
Helland said he and the other commissioners have tried to be “lean and mean” in running the district, and that the volunteer system “is as efficient as any other we could have.”
He disagrees that volunteer morale is low, and that recruitment has fallen off. He said most of the district’s six stations are fully staffed with volunteers.
Helland said that the district is using a recently received grant to promote the volunteer program, and that 12 new volunteers will undergo training in the fall. A normal volunteer class is four or five, he said.
He said the part-time paid firefighter program was begun as an experiment and, beyond being an increased expense in tight budget times, also created some tension between paid and unpaid members of the department.
He said the district needs two recently purchased $400,000 fire engines to replace outmoded units, and that the engines often respond to medical situations because their crews are the first to get the calls.
Helland said a new headquarters and training center at Bayview “is absolutely needed,” but that the commission has no plans to go to the voters in these economic times.
Helland said the biggest issue facing the district is meeting the challenges of a growing community. And two of the major hurdles are mostly beyond the district’s control: an improved communications system to alert volunteers, and more left-turn lanes along increasingly busy Highway 525.
“It’s a different world we live in today,” Helland said of the South Whidbey community. “It’s getting to be like Lynnwood.”
Mestemacher, 65, has been a District 3 volunteer for 14 years, the past five years as station captain in Freeland.
He has a master’s degree from San Jose State University in California, and runs the carpentry program at Seattle Central Community College.
He said one of the biggest needs of the district is to communicate with its residents.
“We have an obligation to educate the public about what it takes to sustain a mostly volunteer fire department,” he said.
Operationally, he said the most pressing need is to improve daytime response times, and he also urges the reinstatement of the part-time paid force.
“Recent layoffs have left the department dangerously shorthanded, especially during the day,” he said. “It makes the community more vulnerable.”
He questioned the recent purchase of two new fire engines, saying one new engine would have been sufficient, and the second vehicle should have been something cheaper and more maneuverable.
Mestemacher supports a new training facility at Bayview.
“A consolidated facility is needed to ensure a well-trained professional volunteer fire department, and a Bayview facility would be perfect,” he said. “Time and money would be saved in the long run.”
He agreed that volunteer recruitment and retention are vital, especially retention of trained personnel.
“They make fewer mistakes, work as a team and have established a mutual trust,” he said.
Mestemacher said a central training facility, educating the public and bolstering the volunteer program “are the best use of public money.”
He suggests delaying the hiring of a new chief to replace Dan Stout, who will retire in February, until the economy improves. He also proposes offering stipends to seasoned volunteers willing to train new recruits.
“We must maintain the public trust by being as fiscally prudent and bare-bones as safety will allow,” he said.