Northwest NEWS

February 21, 2000

Local News

Snure, Miller address Commissioner's comments

by Marshall Haley, staff reporter

   "I just looked at Mr. Callon's figures and knew they were wrong," said former mayor and current City Councilmember Bob Miller about the paper Fire Commissioner Dave Callon passed out to the Council during the Public Comment part of their Jan. 7 Study Session.

   "I was board chairman of the fire district before I became a city councilmember (in 1993)," Miller said. "I was a fire commissioner for five years. I know how their budget operates. When I asked Mr. Callon about personnel costs, he said, 'I only give them CPI (Consumer Price Index, related to how it affects cost of living increases).' 'Only CPI?' I asked. 'Yes,' he said.

   "District employees have never gotten only CPI, always CPI plus more. But that's my informed opinion, not the Council's opinion. I expect us, as councilmembers, to form our opinions based on facts presented to us. That's why I asked Chief Steve Smith to have the commissioners draft a formal statement that includes actual budget figures that we can compare to the figures Mr. Callon quoted. I also recommended to Council that we not allow anyone to speak at our meetings who claims to represent an official viewpoint that we know is erroneous."

   Callon said he felt obligated to protest the budget before the City Council, because three years ago, he had told them he would take the lead in lowering their charges after the Council told the Commission they might have to look elsewhere for cheaper service. Callon said the previous board of commissioners--of which he is the sole holdover--did reduce the budget for three years, but that the two budgets since then have substantially increased. That goes against the city's Charlie Earl Study from 1997, which showed Woodinville had one of the highest costs per service call in the state, Callon claims.

   "That is not the way it happened," said Miller. "Right after we incorporated, we paid for the Charlie Earl study to gauge our fire service, to see if it supplied the level of service our citizens needed. The study showed the Woodinville fire district supplied excellent service, comparing very favorably to other districts in the state. The Council was very pleased with the study results and level of service it showed. That's why we didn't have to consider contracting with another fire district."

   Last Tuesday, Feb. 15, Callon's fellow commissioners admonished him for speaking about the district's budget in the manner he has. Callon reminded them that their legal counsel told them, at their Feb. 1 meeting, that his right to speak as an individual was constitutionally protected.

   Clark Snure of Des Moines, the district's legal advisor, said Callon's speech would be protected under the First Amendment, unless it involved libel or slander of any person or organization. The Supreme Court has imposed free speech restrictions involving some personnel matters, when statements disturb the overall effective workings of an entity. But that usually involves statutory violations such as sexual harassment, he said. The Commission's "admonishment" of Callon was a censure that simply records the majority's displeasure with Callon's actions, but does not necessarily have legal implications, said Snure.

   "I recommend to all fire commissioners that if they believe a majority action is not in the best public interest, that they make a public statement for the record," said Snure. "If the majority believes any public criticism is harmful to the working operation of the board, they can censure or take legal action. A minority party has two options: they can make formal objections or quit.

   "In matters of general public interest, constitutional restrictions don't apply to someone publicly voicing a minority opinion. Restrictions depend on the context and actual words used. It's not uncommon for elected officials to publicly object to a majority opinion. That's the nature of politics."

   "They (other commissioners) don't like me saying the budget increased 20 percent, instead of the eight percent they claim," said Callon. "I know they are talking about actual expenses only, and are not counting the money that's going back in the reserve fund. But what I call a budget is what we tell King County we need and what they give us from taxes collected. We told King County we need 20 percent more."

   Snure said the Commission set aside $580,000 this year to partly replenish their reserve fund, depleted by unusual capital expenditures the last few years. Gradual building of reserves eliminates the need to ask for public money through special bond levies, he said.

   Some fire commissioners have expressed outrage that Callon has publicly stated they were putting one million dollars in the reserve fund this year. They also object to his apparently ignoring the fact that the emergency reserve fund dropped from the longtime target of $5 million down to around $2 million, due largely to unusual tax rate decreases over a three-year span.

   "Other than during that time, the tax rate now is the same it was 15 years ago," said Dan Quiggle, president of the district's firefighters union. "We just have more service calls because Woodinville has more people, more businesses, and more buildings." The present tax rate is an average of $1.50 per every $1,000 of assessed value, as it was in years past, said Quiggle. But during the three years when the former commissioners cut those rates and the district's reserves shrank, the average was $1.27 per $1,000 one year, and $1.32 per $1,000 the other two years, he said.

   Those are the cuts Callon took credit for when he spoke to the City Council. The average cost per call is also a misleading figure Callon uses, said Quiggle, because the district's public education program has made people more safety-conscious. That has reduced the number of service calls, which raises the average, he said.

   Callon said he didn't favor cutting the Deputy Chief of Operations (D/C) position before now because he hates to lay people off. But not hiring a replacement for the recently-vacated post does not involve a layoff, he reasoned.

   Last week, the other commissioners stressed the critical role of the D/C of Operations, a position within virtually every local fire district. They have instructed Chief Smith to begin his search for temporary and permanent replacements for the position.

   Callon said he doesn't think it is the fire commission's job to create the district's budget. The commission should simply micro-manage, he said, weighing the chief's advice on what the district needs.

   Both Miller and Snure said the commissioners do not create the budget, but review and compare its figures with previous years' requests, and weigh those against present needs. Of the several fire districts Snure represents in western Washington, the Woodinville commissioners spend more time analyzing the administration's budget requests than do most boards, he said. Their detailed analysis suggests a fiscally responsible process, rather than rubber stamping requests submitted by the chief and administrative staff, Snure said.

   Callon has either not attended the budget hearings or has walked out in the middle of them to protest expenditures, during the four years Quiggle said he has attended the hearings.

   "I believe in my heart that I'm doing the best I can for the public," said Callon. "It's not fun to go to meetings and get roasted. I have a lot of experience running my own businesses, so I know what it takes to be fiscally responsible. We're a great fire district, but we don't spend very frugally."