SEAL ROCK — During the May 18 special election, voters in the Seal Rock Rural Fire Protection District will decide whether to support a ballot measure to increase the district’s tax levy from $0.40 per $1,000 of assessed property value to $0.80 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
With a simple majority of voter support, or 50 percent plus one vote, the new five-year levy will replace the one currently in place, set to expire June 30, 2022. According to the district, the measure is estimated to generate more than $465,000 in tax year 2022-23, more than $480,000 the following year, and increasing to an estimated $527,462 in the levy’s final tax year, 2026-27.
In the summary of the measure on the May 18 special election ballot, Seal Rock Fire states, “The reasons for the request are increasing personnel costs and allowing for adequate staffing. Additional staffing will allow us to better comply with national standards for minimum number of firefighter to be on scene of structure fire.”
However, one lifelong Seal Rock resident and a former longtime member of the fire district is rallying his neighbors to vote against the local option tax levy.
Paul Highfill, a former Seal Rock Rural Fire Protection District assistant chief and volunteer firefighter who served 33 years with the department, thinks that doubling the fire district’s tax funding is asking too much.
“I think that basically, the board (of SRRFPD directors) hasn’t done a good job figuring out our finances right yet,” Highfill told the News-Times earlier this week. “Seal Rock has always been solvent in the past, so why now are we going to go broke all of a sudden if we don’t double our taxes? I don’t want to see them double the doggone thing for the same amount of firefighters and level of service.”
Highfill was one of three volunteers who abruptly submitted their resignations during a March 2020 Seal Rock Fire Board meeting and walked out, along with Mike Burt and Lyle Beard. The trio had issues with the fire district’s board and Seal Rock Fire Chief Tom Sakaras, whom they believed was draining the district of volunteer firefighters and limiting its ability to safely protect its residents.
Even this week, Highfill said he could name at least seven former Seal Fire firefighting volunteers who would return to serve the district if the chief is replaced.
“Obviously, the lack of long-term planning is a major fault of the current board,” Highfill wrote in an email to the News-Times sent last weekend. “The truth of the matter is that this district needs to recruit volunteers to work alongside paid firefighters.”
Highfill believes it would have been far more prudent for the district to have placed a measure on the May ballot that extends the current tax levy, rather than increase it twofold.
“Before taxpayers are asked for more funding, the district needs to have a comprehensive monetary, multi-year plan and prove all avenues for firefighter coverage have been exhausted,” Highfill wrote on in the argument against the measure to be featured on the ballot. “A plan for recruitment and retention of volunteers, the backbone of this fire department, is essential. We pay a full time chief to accomplish this goal.”
In his email to the News-Times, Highfill backed three new candidates for the Seal Rock Fire board appearing on the May ballot. Highfill backs resident Paul Rimola in his race to unseat Position 1 director Larry Henson. Mike Burt is running against SD Skip Smith and incumbent board member David Oliver for Position 4, and former board member Al Anton is running unopposed for Position 5 director. The elected Position 2 and 5 directors will serve four-year terms, while the Position 4 elected will complete the remaining two years of an unexpired four-year term.
“I don’t think this board has written up any specifics about where this money is going to go,” Highfill said. “And until we possibly have some new members get on that board, or the current ones get it figured out, I don’t think the residents will be getting their money’s worth.”