Bend council sends fire levy to May ballot

Airport neighbors cold-shoulder helicopter expansion

Bend fire levy heads to May ballot

BEND, Ore. - Bend city councilors gave a warm, unanimous send-off Wednesday night to a long-planned May money measure to help fund fire and medical services, while some upset neighbors of the city's airport east of town gave the cold shoulder to plans for expanded helicopter operations.

"Why wasn't I notified?" asked Doug Covey, who lives a half-mile from the airport and boards 20 horses and only learned just learned of the plans. "That's going to affect my house value."

Moving in by an airport, Covey said he expected noise. But with many more and larger helicopters proposed, he wondered, "What's going to happen when one of those big birds fly over and my horses go through a fence?"

Tom Maddux, whose home is 1,000 feet east of the airport boundary, said he was on a citizen advisory committee for the master plan, but with a proposal to double the helicopter operations and bring in larger ones, "you're going to create property values that are worthless" and will need to be bought out.

Fellow Peacock Lane resident John Hancock said the impact will be hard on hundreds of residents in the Cimarron City neighborhood.

"Yesterday, a helicopter flew so low over my house, I could smell it when it went past," Hancock told councilors, adding that recently, around 5 a.m., a 900-horsepower helicopter sat at the airport for two hours, running its engine.

Councilors and city staff assured the neighbors that, even if they did not get formal notice of the plans, they are indeed part of the Bend Municipal Airport Master Plan – and the planned environmental analysis will look at neighbor impacts, as well as safety issues. They also Deschutes County will hold land-use proceedings, since the airport is east of the city.

City Manager Eric King (who got a stellar yearly job review this night, praised by councilors as "innovative, visionary and fair") said the potential heliport on the east side of the airport still requires council approval to amend its comprehensive land-use plan, a move the city hopes to see completed by late winter or early spring.

Airport Manager Gary Judd acknowledged that the neighbors' "concerns are very valid," but said the Federal Aviation Administration will have an extra meeting to kick off the review process.

"It's a difficult situation," he said, balancing the safety of airport users and the livability of neighbors. But he noted there have been 11 public meetings over a "very long process" to get to this point, and it's not done yet. He also said the "Fly Friendly" plan for fixed-wing airport users also is done with helicopter companies, and "they've been very responsive" in terms of adjusting flight plans to minimize the impact on neighbors.

Things were far less contentious as councilors heard a report on a citizen survey during their work session that shows a majority of voters are likely to approve a May proposal to levy a 20 cents-per-$1,000 property tax levy to boost Bend Fire and Rescue staffing and gear, and thus cut response time for fire and medical calls.

The rural county fire district which Bend also serves under contract has a closer margin of support, but there's plenty of campaigning to do by a political action committee (city staff cannot advocate for a measure during an election, though elected officials are free to.)

The survey found the strongest support among women and Democrats; lowest among males and Republicans. The biggest hurdle, in terms of critics: a lack of trust in government to use money wisely.

If the city voters were to pass the levy but the surrounding fire district didn't, by a small margin, Fire Chief Larry Langston said they would have to regroup" and could go back for another vote in the fire district area.

One cause for optimism, and a key to the campaign that lies ahead, is that, as Langston puts it, the expiring sheriff's (jail) and library bond measures "will significantly offset the cost to taxpayers."

In an issue summary, Langston said the proposal would raise $1.8 million in the first year of the levy and $10 million over the five-year period. He said the fire department actually has fewer personnel than six years ago and less than other Oregon cities and districts of comparable size, resulting in response times below national averages for similar-size cities.

When Council Mark Capell said the need for more fire funding has been a topic in his seven years on the council, Langston said the discussions really go back about 20 years.

Because the city's growth (and resulting higher revenues) have not kept up with rising demands for service, Capell said the department is "dramatically underfunded. We are putting people at risk, with a response time longer than medical professionals" have urged.

Capell praised fire officials for "a number of efficiency measures," including the recent addition of a two-man truck for some medical issues and changes in schedules.

"You have really worked on creating an optimum staffing level with the funding you have, and you are to be commended," he said. "But it's not enough, and it's time for us to step up and say to the public, we need more money to fund it properly."

Councilor Doug Knight said he was pleased the city had not gone with the option of annexing the city fire department into the rural fire district. Colleague Jodie Barram said she also is "hugely supportive" of the measure, but added, "The only thing I wish it could be, that it's not – it's not a permanent fix, only five years. That's unfortunate. I think the department deserves long-term, permanent funding."

Mayor Jim Clinton called it a "legacy issue" of revenues not keeping up with growing demands for service, and said the funding represents "not just money to maintain the status quo, but will be used to reduce those response times."

"Anybody in the unfortunate position of needing attention in five minutes – if that doesn't happen, the probability for surviving goes way down," Clinton said. "This translates directly into saving lives. On the fire side, it translates directly into getting to fires when they are small and not flashing over to where they are big fires."

There are plenty of issues to disagree on, the mayor said, but "no matter what disagreements we have in the community, this is one we really all need to support."

Councilor Victor Chudowsky said, "I shudder to think what will happen if this doesn't pass. The city is getting more dense, there will be more calls for ambulances as the population ages. We need to get our act together and pass this thing, or we will see a pretty serious decline in the quality of service. It really is a must."

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