By Cindy Filipenko
The Village of Pemberton will cut off fire service to residents in Squamish-Lillooet Regional District’s Electoral Area C on March 1 if a solution to current financial inequities cannot be reached.
A motion to address the fact that VOP taxpayers pay 80 per cent of the cost of operating the fire department but are responsible for only 58 per cent of calls was strengthened by the imposition of the March 1 deadline.
Councillor David MacKenzie amended the motion to include the deadline, saying, “The fire department is one of the largest expenses we have. Putting the burden on the taxpayers of Pemberton is unfair.”
MacKenzie is also a volunteer firefighter and is intimately acquainted with the department’s operations.
The proposed budget for operating the service in 2007 is $365,000.
Questioned as to whether the fire department would refuse to fight fires out of the VOP, Mayor Jordan Sturdy was adamant.
“If we request them to discontinue service in some areas, they will.”
Fire Chief Russell Mack confirmed that while he would do it, he wouldn’t like it.
“And I don’t think any of my guys would like it. That’s not the business we’re in,” said the fire chief.
That said, he expressed sympathy with the VOP’s position.
“This issue has been going on for years. The village is absolutely right to pursue getting fair compensation.”
Chief Mack pointed out that establishing a fire hall and truck costs an average of $1 million. And while there might be the money for the SLRD to establish another fire service, he says the biggest issue is staffing.
“There’s simply not enough people in the region,” he said. “The village has to do some hard negotiating with the SLRD and Susie (Gimse) to settle the issue.”
Mayor Sturdy has been dealing with the fire servicing cost issue in Electoral Area C through the Joint operations Committee of the VOP and SLRD. He’s frustrated by what he perceives as a lack of commitment on the part of Electoral Are C representative Gimse to fully address the issue. He noted that while Director Gimse had indicated that there were some funds available, he said that he “doubted that it would come close to the $75,000 we are currently subsidizing.”
Chief Administrative Officer Lori Pilon emphasized that an essential first step would be developing a communication plan to let people in electoral Area C know that they are not covered. MacKenzie agreed with Pilon.
“People assume in this day there is a firefighter, an ambulance or a police officer wherever they are, they just have to call,” said MacKenzie.
The boundaries of the Pemberton fire department are the Ryan Bridge, the Rutherford Bridge and the Mt. Currie railroad tracks. Anything outside those perimeters is considered Electoral Area C.
Chief Mack said that when he took the job, he made it clear that he was not interested in imaginary boundaries when it came to helping people. He pointed out that a couple of years ago, a farm up the valley had a barn catch on fire due to winds catching a brush fire. It took the department 25 minutes to get to the outlying farm, but they got there.
“He (the farmer) lost his barn, but we managed to save everything else. If we hadn’t been there he would have lost everything.”