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Fire-ambulance merger proponents win a relatively close election race for EMS board

PAT KRUIS/MADRAS PIONEER - Currently, the Jefferson Fire District and the Emergency Medical Services District operate separately. On May 18, voters elected three EMS board members who favor merging the two entities.

The three candidates who won seats on the Jefferson County Emergency Medical Services board May 18, Mike Ahern, Janet Brown and Joe Krenowicz, ran for one single reason: to merge fire service with ambulance service in Jefferson County.

"I feel good that the voters truly looked at the issues," says Krenowicz. "Now it's up to the two boards to sit down and talk about it, and address consolidation."

"I think it was a referendum," says Ahern.

EMS Director Mike Lepin says he's not surprised at the outcome of the vote. "I didn't know which direction it was going to go. I knew it would be close." Lepin says with this election result, he expects the two entities, fire and EMS, will merge.

Voters did back all three pro-merger candidates, but it wasn't a landslide. Out of 2,606 votes cast for either candidate, not counting write-ins, Krenowicz won by 58 votes. Out of 2,593 votes cast in her race, Brown won by 189, and out of 2,666 votes cast in his race, Ahern won by 256.

The new members will join Dave Budden on the board. He spent 20 years heading up the EMS volunteers. He's disappointed incumbents Louise Muir, Patricia Neff and John Curnutt lost their races.

"It didn't bother me," says Louise Muir, who served on the board for about four years. "I feel bad for Pat and John who have spent 35 years building the agency since it began and then someone else coming in and saying they want something different."

"They've done such a wonderful job over the years," says Budden, "and they have a lot more to contribute."

Budden opposes the efforts to merge fire and EMS. "As far as I can tell, all they want is our money. We've got money in the bank and that's what they're after," says Budden. "If they're so worried about the fire department, they should have got on the fire board."

The new board members swear in at the July 12 meeting of the EMS board.

"I'll be eager to learn about that part of the ambulance services," says Ahern. "I'll be all ears, study the budget more. It'll be educational."

"I'm anxious to meet with the fire board to see what we can do in the meantime," says Brown, "because a merger is quite a process and takes a long time to do no matter how you do it."

While working out a potential merger, Brown wants to see more joint training between the agencies, and she wants both agencies to share one radio frequency.

"That should have been done years ago," says Brown. "You listen to some of those 911 calls, the 911 operator on top of everything else they're doing, is going back and forth between fire and ambulance because they're not on the same frequency."

Jefferson County EMS currently staffs the ambulance hall around the clock. Fire has full time staff 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and depends on volunteers nights and weekends. People in favor of a merger say combining the agencies will allow 24/7 staffing for both fire and ambulance.

Brown would also like to increase pay for ambulance staff. "We need to make their wage competitive. That's probably why we lose people. When you don't pay well, you're a stepping stone or a revolving door."

"I don't know how they're going to do it," says Muir, who wonders how long the new board members will serve once they've achieved their goal of merging the agencies. "How committed are they?"

"They're dishonest," says Budden. He doesn't believe there's enough money for all the new board members' plans. "They said there'll be no new taxes. But you watch, there'll be new taxes."

With a five-member board, the pro-merger group has the majority. Budden will oppose their efforts to merge. "I will always try to prevent that from happening," says Budden.

"There is zero animosity," says Ahern. "I'm going to walk into this real positive."

"Nobody told me it was going to be easy," says Brown. "I've taken on hard projects before, and you just keep your focus and do what's right."

(The Pioneer could not reach EMS board member Steve Heydon for comment.)

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