The two men running against each other for a seat on the board governing North Whidbey Fire and Rescue agree on a lot of issues facing the department, and both oppose the agency’s request for a levy lift on November’s ballot.
The main difference is in the experience they bring to the table.
T.J. Lamont, a retired Navy chief, is also a retired volunteer firefighter who has 26 years with North Whidbey Fire. He was a fire commissioner for 12 years, leaving the board in 2012 after losing an election.
His years on the board, he said, were marked by fiscal discipline, which he feels was lacking in recent years.
“We had $1.2 million in reserves when I left,” he said. “We paid cash…We saved a lot of money in interest that way.”
Gerald Smith, an Oak Harbor native, is a lieutenant with the Navy fire department and has worked 15 years for the department. He has been a volunteer with North Whidbey Fire for 24 years. He’s never held an elected position before, but he said he brings a fresh outlook.
As a current firefighter, Smith also said he’s up-to-date on firefighting standards and requirements, plus he’s actively engaged within the department.
“In the past, the commissioners hadn’t stayed engaged,” he said, “but relied on the word of the fire chief, which is where it’s got us today.”
Where the department is today is recovering from internal strife that surrounded the former chief, Mike Brown, who resigned in August. Some volunteers in the department were upset because they felt he was trying to force them out and move toward career staffing; the department’s career staff currently consists of a chief, a battalion chief and a part-time safety chief.
Both Lamont and Smith oppose such a move. Lamont said he hopes to keep the department as a mostly volunteer force for as long as possible, though he feels it’s inevitable that the department will gradually need more career staff as the population grows in the future.
Smith said a career staff wouldn’t help with the geographical challenges. He said the district has done a lousy job recruiting volunteers in recent years and should get aggressive with it.
Lamont and Smith said they also feel the former chief was spending too much money unnecessarily. They oppose the levy lift, which was promoted by Brown.
They agree that the department may someday need to go to the public, but any tax increase should only fund a specific need and then sunset.
“I don’t see anyone willing to give you a blank check,” Lamont said.
Smith argues that the department needs to stop doing jobs that are the responsibility of other agencies, at least not without compensation. Water rescue, for example, is the county sheriff’s responsibility, but the department has a water rescue team and recently purchased a new boat.
He said fire department officials should sit down with officials from other agencies and come up with a common understanding of what each agency’s responsibilities are. He said the fire department should be compensated for services performed beyond its purview similar to the way the hospital pays the department to handle medical calls.
“I want to reevaluate how we are doing business,” he said, “and make sure all agencies are pulling their weight.”
Lamont said the would like the department to rebuild its reserves, but there is equipment that needs to be replaced. He’s against buying used equipment because “you never know what you’re going to get.” He said he doesn’t like the idea of leasing, for example, but there might not be a lot of choices.
“You have to be willing to look at the alternatives,” he said.