October 14, 2009 · Updated 9:00 AM
The race for District 2 fire commissioner, position three, is between two longtime North Whidbey Fire and Rescue volunteer firefighters, two-term incumbent Larry Morse and political-newcomer Jerry Goen.
The main issues that divide the two similar candidates came out during a League of Women Voters’ forum last week. Two North Whidbey fire levies failed miserably last year after lackluster campaigns. Morse admitted that he and the other commissioners could have done a better job.
“The last two times when we went out to ask for a levy raise, we did not present it too well to the public,” he said.
Goen said it’s time to start educating the public about the fire department’s needs.
“I don’t think we’ve done a real good job at selling a levy or a bond,” he said. “I think education is probably our best thing for people to understand our need, especially if we’re going to stay with the same quality of service that we have.”
The need for a levy increase remains real, Morse said. Equipment is very expensive, he said, and the department’s needs continue to increase at a rate that outpaces the station’s $1.2 million budget.
The two men have different thoughts on the department’s paid-on-call firefighters. In response to a question about the paid-on-call program and whether it should remain the same or be increased, Morse said he’s inclined to ask for more help from the hospital district due to the department’s current financial crunch.
“In response to the second part of the question, no. I feel (paid-on-call) is having an adverse effect on our volunteerism,” he said.
Goen said he supports the paid on-call program because it improves the department’s response times.
A retired banker with 33 years of experience in the financial industry, Morse and his family have lived in the district for 34 years. During 30 of those years he served as a volunteer firefighter and medical responder for North Whidbey Fire and Rescue.
“I want to create a long-term plan to enhance and improve fire services that will attract more and better-equipped volunteers,” he said.
Morse said he encourages taxpayers to attend the commission’s public meetings on the second Tuesday of each month.
“In order to best serve the taxpayers of the fire district, all views of the situation should be considered and diversity in the background is a good thing,” he said.
Morse said he provides a different perspective because of his background in the private sector. The other two commissioners are retired civil-service employees, as is Morse’s opponent, Goen.
“I offer the taxpayers a proven record of honesty, experience and dedication,” he said.
Goen is a Texas transplant and 36-year Whidbey Island resident. He retired from the Navy in 2005 after 30 years. While in the service he was a maintenance, material and control officer and managed a $3-million budget and 120 sailors.
In 2008, Goen retired from 29 years of civil service; six years as an auto mechanic and 23 with the Navy Region Northwest Fire Department.
Goen joined North Whidbey Fire and Rescue as a volunteer firefighter one year after Morse. His previous experience with the Navy Region Northwest Fire Department and 29 years with North Whidbey made him sensitive to issues that affect the firefighter’s quality of life, he said.
“That is our best resource and something that we really need to able to take care of,” he said.
Goen told the voters’ forum audience that he supports the volunteer fire department, the paid-on-call program, water rescue and high angle rescue.
“I’m running for commissioner in order to improve the cohesiveness within the board of commissioners,” he said. “I believe that we’ve got to be able to get our point across, but at the same time we’ve got to be able to listen to the other points and come to an agreement of some sort.
Former Oak Harbor city councilman Paul Brewer, who advocated a partnership between the Oak Harbor Fire Department and North Whidbey Fire and Rescue during his time in office, said the city almost surrounds the Heller Road station, and wondered if either candidate is willing to negotiate a partnership with the city.
“In groups, it comes cheaper,” Brewer said after suggesting the team could consolidate its resources and built a new station on the west side of the city.
The commissioners have already met with City Council and with a prior mayor, Morse said, but the Oak Harbor Fire Department didn’t show interest in the Heller Road location, and instead preferred a new station on Fort Nugent Road.
The two departments have been training together and do dual response, he said, but cooperation between the two should increase.
Goen acknowledged that a combined station has been talked about for years.
“I think it’s a possibility, and it’s something that we should go forward and look at,” he said, “but getting through all the red tape and getting everybody on the same page, I think, is the stumbling block we’ve been having over the last few years.”
Oak Harbor resident Mel Vance asked the candidates about their level of support for water rescue and if the program should stay with one boat, or increase to two boats.
Morse said he supports water rescue, but the department doesn’t get any tax money to support the program, making it hard to expand.
“The firemen are very much involved and want the rescue program,” he said, adding that he’s pushed for a second boat in the past but there’s been a lack of funding.
Goen said the department needs two boats because it’s a safety concern.
“We going out there to mitigate an emergency that’s happened, but we also need to make sure that our people are taken care of,” he said.