4 candidates vie for 2 spots on fire board | TheUnion.com

4 candidates vie for 2 spots on fire board

Four candidates are running for two open seats on the board of directors for the Ophir Hill Fire Protection District: Incumbent Robert “Buckley” Armacher, firefighter Sandra Helmuth, Anne Sousa and Lois Engel.

The district encompasses 9 square miles centered in Cedar Ridge on Highway 174, between Grass Valley and Colfax. The department is staffed by a full-time fire chief, one full-time captain, two full-time engineers, two seasonal firefighters and 16 paid, on-call firefighters, as well as a part-time bookkeeper.

Buckley Armacher

Armacher was a volunteer firefighter for 10 years and has been on the board for four years. He owns Budget Blinds in Grass Valley and has lived in the district for 25 years.

“It’s important to have people (on the board) who are familiar with the fire service,” Armacher said. “I’ve got a pretty good knowledge of the operations, but I’m also a businessperson, so I know how to run a budget.”

Armacher, who calls himself a fiscal conservative, said the district has been run on a “fairly sound” basis, but he is concerned about a sharp drop in revenue caused by the economic downturn.

“We need to be careful about how we spend our money,” he said. “This is the first year in a while that we have had to dig into our reserves.”

Armacher also is concerned that the district is allowed to raise its special assessment on properties every year with no discussion, he said. The district can increase the assessment with an annual cost-of-living adjustment capped at 5 percent.

This year, Armacher said, it went up by 1-1/2 percent, a move he alone opposed.

“They should at least give the people in the community a chance to have public comment on major issues,” he said.

Armacher raised a question about a potential conflict of interest for one of his opponents, volunteer firefighter Sandra Helmuth, who is endorsed by the Ophir Hill Firefighters Association. The association also has endorsed Anne Sousa, a former board member.

“The association is pushing one of their own,” he said. “It seems like a conflict of interest to have a firefighter decide their pay and their benefits.”

Sandra Helmuth

Helmuth was “born and raised” in Grass Valley and has lived in the district for 2 1/2 years. She is a volunteer firefighter with Ophir Hill.

“I attended a few of the board meetings and it piqued my interest,” Helmuth said, “I’ve been with Ophir Hill for a year now, and I also was a volunteer with Grass Valley City Fire from ’95 to ’99.

“I’ve learned so much from the fire department, and I wanted to give back,” she added. “I thought the best way was to be on the board, to help their interests and see that things go right for them.”

Helmuth disputed any potential conflict of interest that might come from her election.

“The (firefighters) association is a separate entity. They can choose who they want to support,” she said. “I have no influence over that. The only personal relationship I have with the paid staff is a professional relationship. I don’t hang out with them.”

Helmuth cited budgetary concerns as one reason for running.

“I want to be sure funds are disbursed and used … in a smart way, and not wasted, that the equipment and personnel and response is there for the public,” she said. “The bottom line is, I want to give back to the fire department and to try to help make the best decisions for the department and for the taxpayers in our response area. They deserve the best outcome and emergency services that they’re paying for.”

Anne Sousa

Sousa has lived in the district for 20 years and served on the board for 10 years.

“My husband was on board after me, but he passed away in 2009,” she said.

Sousa said she has maintained a close relationship with the fire department over the years, with many of the volunteer firefighters using her property to practice skills such as drafting water into a tender from a pond.

“They asked me to be on the board again,” she said.

Sousa said she would focus on “watching out for the taxpayers’ money, and making sure everything is going the way it’s supposed to.

“I would have to get back up to speed, I’ve been out of it for a while,” she added. “But I’m a bulldog about spending money that I don’t think is necessary.”

Lois Engel

Engel has served on the board of directors in the past. She declined to comment on her candidacy.

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail lkellar@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4229.

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