Town shuffles chiefs and budget again

By Pat Jenkins The Dispatch The latest attempt by town officials to make public safety in Eatonville affordable is to replace the full-time fire chief with one contracted from another fire department. Bob Vellias, chief of South Pierce Fire and Rescue, is now handling chief duties for Eatonville Fire and Rescue, too. He replaces Bob Hudspeth, who headed the town's department for two years before being released by Mayor Mike Schaub as a cost-cutting move. Hudspeth's annual total compensation, including benefits, was about $92,000. Under a contract approved by the Town Council, Eatonville will pay $2,400 per month for Vellias' services. The agreement between the town and South Pierce Fire, whose commissioners also approved it, will expire Dec. 31 unless the council extends it. That decision will depend partly on whether voters in the town approve a levy that would raise property tax revenue by $342,876 and allocate the money for public safety purposes in 2015. The levy, which is on the ballot for the general election that ends next month, was ordered by council members after they agreed with Schaub that the town is facing a budget crisis for police and fire services. According to town officials, Eatonville faces a $270,000 shortfall in public safety funding next year because a federal grant for the fire department will expire at the end of 2014. The police and fire departments combined cost $1.6 million a year (about $800,000 apiece). The fire department has depended heavily on a $300,000 federal grant that runs out at the end of this year. The town has no way to replace that funding, and projected tax revenue in coming years is short of what's needed to adequately support public safety, Schaub said. Even if the levy passes, the higher tax would only be collected for next year. A longer-term financial fix would still be needed. One possibility suggested by Schaub is to put fire protection and emergency medical services under the control of South Pierce through a merger that would require voter approval. That, he contends, would allow the town to still afford police and fire services. In July, the council approved a plan to make a Pierce County Sheriff Department lieutenant, Jim Heishman, the town's police chief under a contract similar to the one involving the fire department. Unlike the latter situation, no thought is being given to Eatonville receiving all of its police services from the county, according to Schaub. Switching to a contracted fire chief "was a cost-cutting step to prepare for next year's budget,GÇ¥ said Schaub, who considered making the position part-time or volunteer but opted for the arrangement with South Pierce Fire. Saving money that way also reduces the fire department's full-time manpower through the departure of Hudspeth. It now has four full-time firefighters. "We do have a decrease in available resources during the daytime,GÇ¥ Schaub said. "The (town) administration and chief will evaluate and address the daytime staffing needs to ensure the best way to serve the community.GÇ¥ The contract that effectively ended Hudspeth's time as chief was approved by the council Sept. 22. Sheila Dudley, Eatonville's assistant fire chief, was the interim chief until Oct. 1, the date Vellias took over. Eatonville's fire department, which has one station, handled 693 calls last year and so for this year has responded to 426. About 90 percent were medical emergencies. South Pierce Fire has seven stations and 27 full-time firefighters who answer about 2,000 calls per year. The agency's 138-square-mile coverage area includes Clear Lake, Ohop Lake, La Grande, Roy, Lacamas, Harts Lake and McKenna.


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