East Pierce budget cuts loom ahead

The East Pierce Fire and Rescue 2015 preliminary budget was presented to the public during last week’s fire commissioner meeting.

The fire commissioners plan to finalize the budget during a meeting on Nov. 25, and will be submitted to the County Council by the Dec. 6 deadline.The 2015 budget was cut by more than $3 million because the East Pierce Maintenance and Operations levy failed to get a supermajority of 60 percent yes votes during the November general elections.

The fire commissioners and Fire Chief Jerry Thorson said the cuts will affect many of East Pierce’s services, from increased response time for emergencies to cutting public education events.

“We are looking at bare essentials all the way through,” said Fire Commissioner Chair Dale Mitchell.

According to the preliminary budget documents, East Pierce has reduced several expenses in order to balance the department’s budget. Percentage-wise, one of the biggest cuts East Pierce made in their expenses was overtime.

Thorson said that overtime for firefighters is important because training schedules and emergencies don’t happen neatly between shifts.

“We also use it for special events like school characterization programs so that we can leave our companies in service,” Thorson explained. “If we need to put a unit down at Sumner High School for a football game, we could send an on-duty medic unit over, but then if they get called away for a heart attack, they have to dash away and the event is unprotected.”

The 2014 budget allowed for more than $774,000 in overtime. For the 2015 budget, overtime expenses have been cut by 56 percent, leaving $339,000 allotted.

Thorson said this will be achieved through reducing daily staffing of career stations from a total of 23 firefighters down to 20.

“Rolling brownouts” may also be scheduled, closing fire or EMS stations for up to a day on a rotating schedule to cut down on staffing and overtime. Another large cut East Pierce has proposed is in their supplies budget.

“Supplies are everything from bandaids to fuel,” said Thorson. “That is one of those areas where we work real hard with our logistics folks and program managers to keep those costs down as much as possible.”

In 2014, East Pierce spent $812,000 on supplies. The 2015 supplies budget has been reduced by 33 percent, and only has $543,000 allotted.Another large expense for this next year is to replace the firefighter’s breathing apparatuses. East Pierce has withdrawn $1.26 million from their reserve funds to support this expense.

“You can’t have the mask falling apart on you while you are inside that immediately dangerous atmosphere,” Thorson said. “We don’t have a choice, those have to be replaced.”

East Pierce currently has about $5.5 million in their reserve fund, but Thorson said that money must be transferred from the reserve fund into the general fund when calculating the budget, and money cannot be spent directly from the reserve fund.

Additionally, if East Pierce dips too far into the reserve fund, the department’s AA bond status will start to decrease. Thorson and the department’s union were still negotiating employment levels by press deadline.

In total, East Pierce expects to have a budget of $29 million to cover an expected $23 million of expenses, leaving $6 million in the ending fund balance to launch the 2016 budget.

Other levies

East Pierce Fire and Rescue isn’t the only fire department in the area that has had trouble passing fire levies.

Enumclaw/Fire District 21 failed to pass a lid-lift levy to increase property tax rates in 2013.

The Eatonville public safety levy was also not passed by voters this year.

The Graham Maintenance and Operations levy failed in the August primaries, but managed to get passed by voters with 60.4 percent yes votes during the November general elections.

Thorson attributed East Pierce’s difficulty to resident’s perception of the economy.

“A big part of it was the malaise towards taxes and government in general,” Thorson said. “I think that the recession is technically over, but I’m not sure that families are feeling that it is over yet.”

Thorson said the current plan is to run another levy again during the next voting cycle, and not during a special election.

“The board has talked about letting this settle in, and try to live within the funding for a year or two, then reevaluate and bring it back then,” he said. “But we have a lot of work to do with the public prior to that point.”