The future of Ashland Fire & Rescue's Community Emergency Response Team program is uncertain in the wake of news that the program's coordinator and her assistant are leaving their jobs.
Coordinator Lucy Edwards, whose resignation is effective March 23, said she is leaving the program to spend more time volunteering. In a letter to CERT members, she said her part-time assistant, Heidi Gottlieb, may also leave in March to return to work as a registered nurse.
The CERT program trains residents to prepare their families and neighborhoods to deal with and recover from disasters such as wildfires and floods.
The city of Ashland has faced budget problems that have put the popular program on the chopping block for the past three years. Each time, the Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee has decided to preserve the program.
During the 2009 budgeting process, the CERT coordinator position and the jobs of two firefighter/paramedics were saved only when the Budget Committee decided to raise property taxes to fund the positions.
Saving the CERT coordinator position cost the owner of a home assessed at $225,000 an extra $9.45 in the 2009-10 fiscal year.
The city budgeted $48,000 for this year to pay the CERT coordinator's salary, and another $29,500 for benefits — bringing the total to $77,500, city staff said.
The CERT assistant position is funded by an outside government grant. The salary was budgeted at $24,000 this fiscal year with no benefits, city staff said.
Edwards said she is not leaving her job as the CERT coordinator because of the city's budget problems.
She said she wants to become a volunteer in Central America, although she will continue to live in Ashland and contribute to CERT as a volunteer with the program.
"I'm drawn to be a volunteer in a deeper way," Edwards said.
Edwards and her husband, Jim Phillips, were volunteers in Nicaragua from 1985 to 1987. She said they documented the effects of war on the civilian population, including the deaths of 52 adults and children.
Edwards said she has been working on projects in Central America for the past three years and made three trips to Nicaragua in 2009 alone.
She said that she would encourage the city to retain the full-time CERT coordinator position.
Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief John Karns said he wants to preserve the CERT program, but hopes to adjust the staffing to one full-time person rather than one full-time person and a part-time person.
"We're committed to continuing the CERT program, clearly," Karns said. "We want to look at reducing overhead costs.
The ultimate decision about CERT funding rests with the Budget Committee and Ashland City Council.
Karns said the fire department was exploring whether it could use the outside government grant that funds the part-time CERT assistant to pay for a portion of the costs of the full-time CERT coordinator position.
However, he said, the grant was meant to fund a person to augment the CERT coordinator.
If the grant can't be used to help fund the CERT coordinator position and the city would have to pay the full costs of that position anyway, then it would make sense to keep both a coordinator and an assistant rather than giving up the grant funds for the assistant, Karns said.
In 2002, the CERT program had only a part-time coordinator, who worked 25 hours per week. An assistant who worked 16 hours a week was added in 2003. Edwards was hired in 2005 to fill the part-time coordinator position. That job was changed to full time in 2006.
Edwards said the city has to make a decision about the appropriate staffing level for CERT.
"Right now we're going through hard economic times," she said. "I sure hope the CERT program survives. It's a way for people to be involved. It's the best type of involvement. If the city's in trouble, these people will step up."
During the 2009 city budgeting process, CERT volunteers pleaded with the Citizens' Budget Committee not to cut Edwards' job. They said she had helped build the CERT program into one of the most active in the nation.
Created after a major flood in 1997, Ashland's CERT program graduated its first class of residents trained to handle emergencies in 1999. Hundreds have passed through training.
Among other activities in 2009, CERT volunteers helped staff a Jackson County swine flu telephone hotline and helped evacuate residents during the Siskiyou Fire that burned on the outskirts of town.
Firefighters and CERT volunteers will handle training events in April and May, Edwards said in a February letter to CERT volunteers.
For more information on CERT, including volunteer training events, see www.ashland.or.us/Page.asp?NavID=541.
Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or email@example.com.