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First voters forum offers little contrast

Four candidates for the South End fire and port districts squared

off Wednesday at the first voters forum before the Nov. 4 General Election, but none was able to draw a sharp distinction between themselves and their opponents.

The forum featured Fire District 3 commissioner hopefuls Gary Gabelein and incumbent Mike Helland, and candidates for the Port of South Whidbey, Dean Enell and Chris Jerome.

Gabelein told of his long association with the fire district, including service as a firefighter and 18 years serving on the board, while taking a dig at Helland for supporting the reduction in force of volunteer firefighters.

For his part, Helland noted his 12 years on the board and reminded the 40-plus attendees that, “you don’t have to be a firefighter to be a committed fire commissioner.”

Gabelein said the main reason he’s running is to bring more volunteers into the fold.

“When volunteers aren’t available, then the district has to employ more paid personnel which has a negative effect on the budget,” he said. “Volunteers are a great asset to the community and we need to let them, and all of you, know that.”

Helland noted that over 70 percent of calls going out have been medical-related and that the service provided over the past 12 years has been outstanding. He cited a recent survey that showed most fire district customers are satisfied with response times during medical emergencies.

Helland added that firefighter and emergency service workers are well-paid and there is much recognition for volunteers.

Audience member John Hyde questioned what he considered wasteful spending on finding a new fire chief to replace Dan Stout, and complained about duplication of effort now that the new EMT building in Bayview is operating.

Gabelein replied that money has been well-spent over the years.

“Spending time and money for a new fire chief makes sense because we want to hire the best choice for a tough position,” he said.

Helland said he would challenge anyone to find a more cost-effective fire district in the Puget Sound region.

“We need to have overlap with the hospital when an EMT vehicle has to transport someone to the mainland,” he added.

In response to a question about morale, Helland went on the defensive, stating South Whidbey was a volunteer-rich community and noting that three to six volunteers had recently entered the academy.

“The world is a better place for the volunteers who give their time and effort,” he said.

Moderator Sherryl Christie-Bierschenk, president of the Clinton Chamber of Commerce, briskly moved the meeting along by introducing the port candidates.

Jerome said he had a boat at the South Whidbey Harbor marina and frequently kayaked with his family around the island.

“I’m running because I became concerned about businesses closing and declining enrollment in local schools,” he said. “I think the port is in a unique position to do something about that; we need living-wage jobs here.”

Jerome added that port commissioners need to listen closely to residents and merchants before embarking on any new projects, such as an industrial park. He also favors encouraging high-tech businesses and venture capitalists to invest on Whidbey as a way to spur job growth.

Enell stated that his priority is getting the marina finished as the best way to spur economic development. It will also provide revenue for future port projects.

“I’d like to see the port enter into partnerships with Island County, chambers of commerce and the parks district,” he said. “Cooperation with other agencies is important.”

Responding to a question on industrial development districts, both candidates agreed that a unilateral raising of property taxes — allowed by ports under state law to raise money for specific projects without a public vote — would be a poor decision.

“Generally, I’d prefer to go to the voters,” Jerome said.

Enell noted that raising property taxes in any manner was a step not to be taken lightly.

“But I wouldn’t rule it out if the end result was immediate jobs and revenue, but not without a clear dialogue with voters,” Enell said.

Both men agreed that a port-owned and operated airport at Porter Field on Crawford Road wasn’t a feasible alternative in the short-term.

“I wish the port had gotten more feedback from the FAA,” Jerome said. “It’s only a half-mile from Highway 525 and the best use of that land would be for an industrial park.”

Enell questioned whether the lack of access — the only road is privately held — rules out Porter Field for development.

A second forum, featuring commissioner candidates for the Port of South Whidbey, Position 3 — Curt Gordon, Ed Jenkins, Callahan McVay and Mona Newbauer — will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 21 at Clinton Community Hall.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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