Labor dispute looms over Sunriver Fire's future

Career firefighters in arbitration with service district

POSTED: 6:59 PM PDT August 19, 2013    UPDATED: 1:11 PM PDT August 20, 2013 
SUNRIVER, Ore. -

In Sunriver, only three firefighters are on duty at a time -- and firefighters say this summer, they're busier than ever.

Bellatazza Manager Lauranne Crooks said Mondays she's noticed the fire department is sometimes stretched pretty thin.

"There was a car accident out here in front of Bellatazza a few weeks ago that sent three people to the hospital." Crooks said.  "We had to wait on the second ambulance, because they were already out on a call."

Getting help when you need it most can be a struggle -- and it could get worse, depending on the outcome of an ongoing labor dispute.
    
"Now there's even more weight put on your shoulders to provide that emergency service. It brings about a great anxiety," said Firefighter Paramedic Jason Arnold.

The Sunriver Career Firefighters Union is in a contract dispute with its employer, the Sunriver Service District.

The dispute is about more money and benefits the firefighters are requesting.

In short, the two groups can't agree on a labor contract, and the district is considering cuts and other methods to save money.

Firefighters say they want compensation equivalent with industry standards.

"We just want to make sure that we do our jobs, above the expectations of the community, like we do, but yet still be able to provide for our families," Arnold said.

Arnold added the union recently agreed to take reduced insurance coverage, saving the taxpayers about $70,000 a year.

Sunriver Service District board members didn't want to speak about the issue with NewsChannel 21, referring all questions to the district's attorney, who couldn't be reached before press time.

However, board members told the Sunriver Scene the firefighters' requested increases would cost the district more than $900,000 in additional expenses over the next four years.

They compared that expense to the Sunriver police contracts, which would cost about $200,000 over the same time.

The board said meeting the firefighters' demands would either mean raising taxes, reducing services or privatizing fire contracts.

Homeowner Janet Wiley said it's a tough issue, as she doesn't want to see fire services cut, but also doesn't want to pay for increased benefits.

"Fire hazard is a big concern to me, because of all the trees around here," Wiley said. "But if I pay more taxes, I want to see our services increased."

Crooks said she favors a tax increase to benefit firefighters.

"The thought of anything getting cut out here, to me, is unimaginable," Crooks said. "We have so many tourists -- that's what Sunriver lives off of. Winters here are horrible -- there's car accidents all the time."

Arnold said firefighters are asking for cost-of-living wage increases, recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday and more sick pay.

"Are the ramifications beyond what the community as a whole can sustain? Absolutely not," Arnold said.

Either way, the future of the fire department will be decided by a third-party arbitrator, and no decisions are expected until November.