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S.E. Thurston Fire & EMS Chief Rita Hutcheson

The public ravaging of retiring S.E. Thurston Fire & EMS Chief Rita Hutcheson this week by Editor/Publisher Keven Graves was an absolute travesty and over-the-top, even for him!

I have had some very strong views about the Nisqually Valley News lacking depth in their reports, their sometimes desecrating slants to their stories and key omissions of fact that skew their readers’ understanding of important issues, however this Op-Ed was an insult and all should write to let Graves know and/or post comments on the newspaper’s website:
Click here

Hutcheson announced her retirement to Yelm’s City Council On September 13, 2011 and received lavish praise from Mayor Harding, Mayor Pro-tem Isom and others for 30 years of service and as an Army nurse prior to that.
Read more of that story covered here September 16th.

Let’s examine Graves’ Op-Ed remarks one by one:

1. Graves is wrong to compare the financial challenges at SE Thurston Fire with the Yelm Cemetery issues.
For Graves to imply his view there was a mishandling of funds at the Fire Dept. is an outrage!
Fire officials have been impeccable in opening their books, budget and plans to public scrutiny.

2. Graves is wrong to say Chief Hutcheson retired due to the financial issues.
Graves says, “As the financial problems began to rear their ugly head, longtime Hutcheson decided it was time to hand in her resignation.”

Mr. Graves, SE Thurston Fire has had financial challenges for years and Chief Hutcheson has been sounding the alarm that the day was approaching where intended service levels could not be supported. She and Co-Chief King have been very up-front with budget projections in Town Hall public forums, regular public newsletters and columns in your own newspaper. Where have you been?
Hutcheson stayed on as long as she did to do all in her power to preserve service levels and staffing.

3. Graves does not understand the importance of bringing in a new assistant chief or the strategic plan.
Graves states, “the hiring last year of a new assistant chief at a cost of $96,000 per year, plus full medical coverage for him and his family. The fire authority also spent $42,000 on a strategic plan that it can probably no longer afford to implement.”

Hutcheson & the fire commissioners hired the new assistant chief to bring some depth and new, “younger-blood” in the department at the leadership helm. Hutcheson and everyone else knew the days of her retirement after three decades of distinguished service was coming and that co-chief Mark King did not want to be the Chief. The fire authority, and rightly so, went to bring some new, young talent in here to grow in the position and also cultivate new ideas and provide additional energy required to handle the budget and service levels and to fill the huge boots from Hutcheson’s experience whenever she was to retire, to smooth the transition.

They also went outside of their “box” to hire a company to assist with a strageic plan. They learned many valuable lessons in staffing, community outreach and developing a road map to the future.
I applaud them for making these decisions.

4. Graves wants to “blame” Chief Hutcheson & the fire authority’s board of commissioners.
He says:
“Is there something to be learned from the fire authority and cemetery district debacles? I think so.

If they havent already, every single taxpayer-funded agencies should be reviewing their structure and processes to ensure tax dollars are spent wisely.”

Mr. Graves, I have NEVER seen your newspaper suggest the City of Yelm review their taxpayer-funded structure with hundreds of thousands of dollars in unrecoverable taxes and fees, revenue loss, and expenditures that were not in the public’s interest. Again, to compare the fire authority with the cemetery debacle is ridiculous!

No one here could have foreseen the huge property-tax revenue erosion since 2008 that has decimated public budgets. Even Washington State just last week had to make an additional $2 billion budget cut for 2011.
Hutcheson’s and the fire commissioners’ number one goal for many years has been to retain staffing and service levels in the face of huge revenue losses. That this day of reckoning is happening now and not 2 years ago is a testament to their fine efforts.

The financial issues have been a challenge for many years and did not just begin to raise “their ugly head” that led to the chief to retire. The Fire Authority’s financial situation was what led local channeller JZ Knight to donate over $100,000 the the department and that was 2 years ago.

Knight said in Nov., 2009:
“Knight is very aware of the difficult challenges facing the local Fire Commissioners & the Fire Chief to maintain services and existing response times the public expects and demands in emergency situations. In response, Knight has pledged $100,000 in 2010 to Southeast Thurston Fire/EMS for their general operational fund or to where the greatest community benefit would be derived,” quoting JZ Knight.com.

5. Graves’ criticism of Hutcheson taking vacation time vs. lump-sum vacation pay is misplaced.
“As the financial problems began to rear their ugly head, longtime Hutcheson decided it was time to hand in her resignation and take the three months of vacation she has on the books.”

Anyone who has managed finances knows, a retiring or tenured person leaving has less impact to the bottom line if they take their accrued vacation prior to retirement, rather than cashing-out their vacation-time in one lump-sum at their departure.

6. Mr. Graves’ lack of compassion for a fire commissioner fighting for her life was an embarrassment!

If Graves would have just done a little homework, he might have been a bit more compassionate about this remark:
“By all appearances, Hutcheson, as well as longtime Fire Commissioner Kathleen Devin, are jumping out of the frying pan to avoiding dealing with the mess that they helped to create.

Devin, a friend of Hutcheson, failed to show for the last commission meeting and instead sent her letter of resignation.”

Mr. Graves, you should know Ms. Devin turned in her resignation only because she has been fighting a different “fire” that requires all of her attention right now, the battle for her life.

Devin has served with distinction and honor for more than 20 years as an EMT, plus being a Fire Commissioner for at least 15 of those 20 years. Devin’s retirement had nothing to do with the department’s financial situation. She never missed a commissioner meeting unless she was in the hospital or unable to move from chemo. Indeed, Devin stayed on as commissioner as long as she could wanting to be involved in these difficult decisions, however, is battling to regain her health from a debilitating disease.

Bottom line:
Chief Hutcheson, Co-chief King, Commissioner Devin and others have always had an “open-door” to me and this blog and I have been updated continually throughout the years to share their information with Yelm Community Blog readers. There are 6 years of archived stories here about their efforts in serving the public’s interest and keeping patrons informed.

Wazzup with our local newspaper/editor?

That our local newspaper editor/publisher did not have the grace to send-off Chief Hutcheson and Commissioner Devin cheering into their retirement with accolades and thanks for their service is a gross injustice, for his opinion piece was far from based on facts.
Instead, Graves chose to use innuendo, unfair comparisons & lack of information as a guide in his Op-Ed.
These two fine citizens deserved nothing less than sincere appreciation from our newspaper!

Kudos go to The Olympian’s Nate Hulings who filed a superb report on Chief Hutcheson’s retirement.
Read more from The Olympian and beautiful comments left by their readers.

Posted by Steve on October 31, 2011 at 6:49 am | Permalink

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