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Galt, Clements fire districts candidates eye local needs

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Posted: Monday, October 25, 2004 10:00 pm

Two area fire districts -- Galt and Clements -- will have contested elections on Nov. 2.

The Galt Fire Protection District, which covers 56 square miles within Galt and surrounding rural areas to the north, west and east, has four candidates vying for three seats.

Incumbent Rick Haas Jr. faces Barry Flores, Edwin Butler and David Riggs. Joseph Corey and Bill Dufur have decided not to seek re-election.

Edwin Butler, who also filed as a candidate for the race, could not be reached for a telephone interview.

Candidate Barry Flores, a second-generation firefighter, has lived in Galt for 22 years. He works as a captain for the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District and the ROP fire tech coordinator for the Sacramento County Office of Education.

Flores said he's seen the Galt Fire District rise to the challenge of servicing a swelling population despite budget constraints, and thinks that meeting demands for staff and new equipment is the district's highest priority.

"The staffing levels are inadequate for the response area and some of the equipment needs to be upgraded," Flores said, adding that his educational and work backgrounds give him the tools necessary to figure out a solution.

Incumbent Richard A. Haas, Jr., is seeking a second term on the board and has worked in fire service for 19 years. He is a captain at the Elk Grove Fire Department and has lived in Galt for 15 years.

Like Flores, Haas agrees that the district must increase its staffing levels, and hopes to continue the practice of apprenticeships in the department to meet some of that need. He added that in Elk Grove, at least 15 firefighters respond to a structure fire, while in Galt no more than six firefighters are able to do the same work.

Despite talk of a possible merger between Galt Fire and a larger district like Sacramento Metropolitan, Haas said he supports Galt remaining independent and community-run.

"I don't necessarily believe bigger is better," Haas said of a combined district. "It would have to be the last resort."

On the subject of merging, Riggs said he hopes to see the Galt Fire district remain intact regardless of whether it combines with another district.

"It's important that they remember their identity and stay an independent fire department," said Riggs who works for the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.

Riggs, who has lived in Galt for four years, said he would like to raise the level of fire service in the district at least to the national standard. He would also look for creative ways to help fund district projects, like requiring developers to build firehouses for new residents.

The Clements Fire District, which covers 120 square miles and runs from Calaveras and Amador counties in the east into Sacramento County in the north, has four candidates for three seats.

Incumbents Ray Engel and Don Steely filed for re-election, and are up against challengers Robert Buchwalter and Bill Conn. Incumbent Robert Rhoades will not seek re-election.

Robert Buchwalter, who ran for the same seat unsuccessfully in 2002, said he sees running as a way to volunteer in the community that he's lived in for 17 years.

"I've been asked to volunteer in the fire department," Buchwalter said, adding that his job as an investigator for the San Joaquin County District Attorney's Office is excitement enough. "But I can do my part in a different manner."

Buchwalter has also logged nearly 20 years with the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department, and said his extensive background in law enforcement would allow him to bring to the position familiarity with public service and the issues that the board faces.

His opponent, Conn, has lived in Clements for 10 years and said that the services provided by the volunteer staff are quite extraordinary.

"I know a number of people in the volunteer fire department," Conn said. "I just want to see that they get the continued support they need and the best place to do that is on the board."

A semi-retired construction manager who served as a medic in the U.S. Air Force from 1954 to 1958, Conn identified growth as an issue in the district. He said he hopes to see emergency response services expand to meet the needs of a growing population.

Conn added that he would like to see the district receive more staff members and more equipment.

Engel, who is going after his second term on the board, was a Clements firefighter for 27 years and acted as chief of the department for 24 years before retiring. In 1991, Engel became the district's first full-time employee.

"I've had a lot to do with the development of the fire department (since) 1974 when I took over," Engel said.

The retired fire chief said he has been a part of many positive changes in the district, like training firefighters to use EMT difribulators so they could outfit fire engines with the life-saving devices. But, he said, maintaining a balanced budget is the biggest challenge of the Clements district today.

Like Engel, incumbent Don Steely has a long history with the Clements district. A lifelong resident of Clements, Steely used to be a firefighter in the 1960s and is seeking his second term on the board.

The candidate identified stable tax rates as a district priority, and added that the area has done a good job of keeping its taxes even in the past. Steely also said that it was important to maintain a good training program and keep spending down.

"It's pretty important that we keep the taxes down. That was one of the reasons I ran in the first place," he said, adding that board members should not get carried away with purchasing too much new equipment.

Contact reporter Sara Cardine at sarac@lodinews.com.

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