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Rural Fire Board candidates weigh in on issues

POLSON — The Polson Rural Fire District board of trustees has an election coming up on May 4. Beth Hoel and incumbent Alison Meslin are running for a three-year term. Incumbent Paul Laisy and Stephen “Steve” Stanley are candidates for a one-year term. 

The candidates were asked for their name, occupation and how long they have lived in Lake County. They were also asked: 

1. What qualities and experience do you bring to the Polson Rural Fire District Board of Trustees?

2. What three issues facing the Polson Rural Fire District do you feel are most important and why?

 

Beth Hoel

Beth Hoel works as a Social Service Specialist at the Lake County Office of Public Assistance. Hoel and her family have lived in Lake County for five years.

Hoel’s answers to the questions are:

1. I have been in Health and Human Services for over 15 years, and my family has been in public service for over 30 years. Understanding the needs and wants of our emergency responders is second nature to me. I am capable of working well with other agencies and the community effectively and will respond appropriately to the needs to the rural community as a board member.

2. The three most pressing issues are re-establishment of relationship with the firefighters, making responsible decisions that benefit the entire rural community, and being fiscally responsible. 

The relationship between the board and the firefighters needs to be improved through better communication and trust. The decision by a majority of the board not to recognize the Polson Volunteer Fire Department and their inability to connect with the firefighters has caused people to choose not to become volunteers. This has led to mistrust which will continue to hurt the community in the long run. While I recognize the role of the Board is to set policy, I see the volunteers as our greatest asset.

I would work to improve relations by being open and honest and inviting dialog. Involving the Fire Chief, the firefighters and the public in the decision-making processes would be the first step. Making decisions that help improve response and services to the entire community as a whole would be the result. We must have the ability to communicate with others and the capacity to advocate for a better future for the community. We need to trust the firefighters and the Chief in the operational decisions and provide them the support by the board they need to give the community their continued best services presently and in the future.

As a rural taxpayer, I am concerned that the Board makes fiscally responsible decisions. Recently, a majority of the board voted to hire a consultant to study the utilization of the Fairgrounds Station. I agree with the two current Board members who have suggested rather than spend thousands on a consultant, that they should be able to sit down with the firefighters and the Chief and work out the operational needs. I support that the Chief makes operational decisions and that the Board allows the department to be run by the Chief and firefighters. 

I am concerned that members of the board have discussed splitting into two departments, one rural and one city. This makes no sense financially, and more importantly, service to the rural community would be severely impacted. There is no sound basis for such a split or benefit to be gained by the rural community. 

Finally, I have heard suggestions that we build satellite stations. As a rural resident who is a ways away from any station, I am for improving service. However, before we can accomplish that, we need to have equipped and trained volunteers to man the station and equipment to place in it. All of that comes at a cost and I am concerned that as we proceed, we do so in a financially sound and manageable way. I hope you will consider these issues and cast your vote on May 4.

 

Alison Meslin

Alison Meslin and her husband have been Rural Fire District taxpayers since 1998 and became year-round residents seven years ago.

Meslin has 30 years experience in business and accounting and has been a Polson Rural Fire Board Trustee for four years, secretary, and chairperson the last year. 

Meslin’s answers to the questions are:

1. I believe I have energy, organizational skills and a record of getting things done.  Since moving to Big Arm, I led the effort to rebuild the Big Arm Fire Station, re-establish the Big Arm Fire Company and recruit a great group of firefighters there. 

I was one of the board members who created the new Irvine Flats Company, which was badly needed.   

Last year Paul Lacey and I took the lead with the board in building the new Fairgrounds Fire Station.  This was the culmination of a project that rural boards had worked on for 12 years, but had been stalled by various obstacles. By doing the planning and bid project ourselves, we saved rural taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. 

We purchased needed engines, vehicles and other equipment, and stationed the resources so that rural fire coverage is better than it has ever been.    

I worked on federal grant applications to further improve our fire protection and recruit new firefighters. One grant was successful and another is pending. 

2. Until recently, all rural fire response was out of the Polson City station, or from the Big Arm Station when it had enough firefighters. Many parts of the rural fire district were neither well protected, nor in compliance with federal guidelines like the 14-minute response standard. By building a new station and substation our fire coverage is much improved today. We still need substations in Valley View and in the South. Our goal is to get that done within the next two years. This has run into opposition and controversy from some, who thought the rural fire response should continue to just be out of the Polson City station. We are a growing community and improved rural response was overdue.  Continuing this progress without new tax revenue in hard economic times is the #1 challenge. 

Our firefighters are our most important resource. Volunteerism is down. The board should do everything possible to recruit, retain and provide the best safety equipment for these great people.  

The most controversial issue is that this board has made the rural fire district its priority, consistent with Montana law. There were times in the past when nearly all of the rural resources and equipment went into the Polson City station. This was not fair to the rural taxpayers.

I admire the Polson City firefighters as a dedicated and professional group.  But Polson priorities are not always the same as the Rural District priorities. The Polson City firefighters may not be the best ones to control the Rural District resources. The Rural District should continue to work with the City in the current interlocal agreement, as long as that does not compromise the interests of the rural district or violate Montana law.

 

Paul Laisy

Paul Laisy retired from the Missoula Rural Fire District after 30 years. Laisy spent approximately 15 years as a firefighter and 15 years as a Chief officer.

Laisy and his family have lived in Lake County about four years.

Laisy’s answers to the questions are:

1. I have 30 years experience. I started as a volunteer firefighter and became a paid firefighter. I worked in every position in the district, including Hazardous Materials Team Leader to Chief of the Department.

I also worked for several years with the Montana State Fire Districts Association helping to develop rules and laws at the state level governing fire districts.

I served on the Montana State Fire Chiefs Association Board of Directors for five years and am a lifetime member of the International Fire Chiefs Association.

This experience has helped me understand how a Fire District is supposed to operate and what the minimum response time and service level should be for the Polson Rural Fire District residents.

2. Accountability to the residents and taxpayers.  The Board of Directors needs to manage this District according to State laws and national guidelines and also be assured that our firefighters receive proper training and safety gear to do their jobs.

Providing the best response and service to the Fire District residents.  Continuing to have an agreement with the City of Polson so that we can respond to each other’s emergencies.

We need additional sub-stations and volunteers in areas that are over five miles from a current fire station and are growing in density. Waiting 10 to 15 minutes for a response most often is too long when you have a fire or other emergency. This needs to be done without raising taxes.

 

Stephen “Steve” Stanley

Stephen Stanley is the Coordinator for Lake County Office of Emergency Management and is the Lake County Fire Coordinator.

Stanley has been a resident of Lake County since 1960.

Stanley’s answers to the questions are:

1. Stanley is a retired firefighter of 20 years from Polson City and Rural Fire Department. A former Polson Rural Fire Board Member for six years, Stanley currently works with 13 rural fire departments, Tribal Fire Management and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation on the Flathead Reservation and in Lake County.

2. Issues facing Polson Rural: Maintaining a unified Polson City and Rural Fire Department. Working with the fire chief and volunteer firefighters to provide equipment needed with budget constraints of today. In concert with the City of Polson, to provide an environment that makes it enjoyable and safe for our volunteers to perform very difficult tasks.

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