Correction: A previous version of this article stated hiring four new firefighters was responsible for a 36 percent increase of the ‘Salaries & Wages Ops – Fire’ budget. The correct number is 6.3 percent.
After surviving a tumultuous financial year due to a failed levy, East Pierce Fire and Rescue plans to return to full strength by the end of 2017.
Within this year’s budget, which was approved by the department’s Board of Commissioners Nov. 20, are plans to increase staffing levels and minimum staffing by hiring firefighters, recruiting more volunteer firefighters, increasing community outreach events and bringing information technology staff back to normal levels.
The budget expects a 7 percent increase in revenue this year, totaling more than $23 million.
Expenditures tally to just more than $23.6 million, resulting in a $500,000 budget shortfall that EastPierce plans to cover with money that rolls over from 2015 to 2016.
This rollover fund, called the beginning fund balance by East Pierce, is typically used to tide fire departments over until taxes are collected in the spring.
In the past, nearly 30 percent of East Pierce’s total budget rolled over into the next year.
In 2016, only 20 percent of the budget will roll over, a reduction of nearly $2 million from the previous year.
Fire Chief Bud Backer gave an additional $500,000 to the beginning fund balance, money that was not spent from last year’s operations budget.
The total rollover money that will be available for the department to use for the first four months of the year is $5.1 million.
Levies & property taxes –chief sources of revenue
Fire and Emergency Medical Services levies account for the majority of revenue fire departments receive,and East Pierce is no different.
For 2016, taxpayers in East Pierce’s district should expect to pay close to $1.95 in Fire and EMS levies for every $1,000 in assessed property value.
Folks with an assessed value of $250,000 in their land and property will pay approximately $487.
Taxpayers used to pay much more in East Pierce’s district because of a maintenance and operations levy, approved in 2012.
The M&O levy allowed East Pierce to collect an average of $2.36 per $1,000 in assessed property value (for $250,000 in land and property, taxpayers paid approximately $600 per year) for two years.
With the levy’s end in sight in 2015, East Pierce asked voters in August 2014 to renew and increase the M&O levy to approximately $2.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value (meaning $250,000 in land and property cost taxpayers approximately $625 per year) for four years.
The increase in the M&O levy would have allowed East Pierce to hire 12 new firefighters.
However, the levy failed to muster the supermajority, or 60 percent of voters, it needed to pass.
In Nov. 2014, the department tried then to simply re-instate the levy at the levels voters approved in 2012, but the levy would last for four years instead of two.
Again, the levy failed to collect 60 percent of voters needed to go into effect.
Without the M&O levy, East Pierce’s revenue stream was slashed by around $3 million, or close to 14percent, which led to furloughing special operations teams, cutting back public education programs and reducing minimum staffing across the district.
While Backer said he is not interested in asking voters to approve another M&O levy in the near future,the lids on the current EMS and fire levy need to be lifted and the levies reset to their full amount of $2per $1,000 in assessed property value if the department is to maintain its current level of operation, he said.
The department is also looking at asking for a bond issue in 2017 to address facility and apparatus needs Backer said.
New firefighters, special ops and volunteers
In order to get back up to the normal staffing level of 99 responders at East Pierce, the department will be hiring four entry-level firefighters.
Currently, staff levels rest at 97 responders due to two retiring before this year. Two of the new firefighters will be filling those spots.
The other two hires will be replacing a firefighter and captain who will be retiring in January andNovember respectively.
These new firefighters will be put on an 18 month probationary period after they are hired in order to be properly trained, and they will not affect staffing levels until fall of 2017.
The four hires account for a $241,186 increase in the ‘Salaries & Wages Ops – Fire’ expense budget account, a 6.3 percent increase over the previous year.
The department is also bringing back its special operations teams for the full year, which accounts for the additional $434,000 in the firefighter’s salaries expense account.
East Pierce’s Special Operations teams are firefighters specially trained for various firefighting and rescue situations, including wild land firefighting, water rescue, technical rescue and the hazardous material response.
In 2015, the special operations teams were suspended for six months in order to save money after theM&O levy failed to be approved by voters.
In 2016, all four special operations teams will receive training and pay for the entire year.
East Pierce is also planning on bringing 10 new volunteer firefighters on board, spreading the cost between 2016 and 2017.
Recruitment for volunteer firefighters is planned to take place late summer and fall in 2016 and will focus on recruiting in the Milton, Edgewood and South Prairie areas, in order to increase the number of community responders in those areas.
The department estimates it will cost $22,000 to recruit and train the new volunteer firefighters in 2016.In 2017, overtime costs for in-house training is approximately $46,000.
The department plans to train the volunteer firefighters at East Pierce, instead of sending them to other departments, “which would be like the Seahawks sending their rookies to be trained by the Packers,”Backer said. “(In-house training) builds a stronger continuity between the volunteers and the paid guys.”
Staffing levels, capitol projects and community outreach
East Pierce also plans to increase minimum staffing levels from 21 firefighters to 22 during in 2016.
Minimum staffing is the amount of firefighters and medical crews on duty at all the career fire stations atone time, and should not be confused with the total amount of first responders the department employs.
A minimum staffing level of 21 firefighters meant East Pierce’s engine companies staffed two firefighters at a time.
This meant East Pierce’s ladder truck was out of commission last year, because operating a ladder truck requires a minimum of three members to use it safely.
Increasing the minimum staffing level to 22 will allow the ladder truck to come back into service and comes at an additional cost of $150,000 in the overtime budget line item.
The department also has four different capital projects needs in the upcoming year.
East Pierce plans on connecting Station 118 to the sewer line, since the current septic system is nearing the end of its lifespan.
This will cost the department approximately $90,000, funded by the station’s reserve fund.
The department also plans to re-chassis two medic units and install power load gurneys into the units,costing approximately $230,000 and $219,500 respectively.
Both units are more than 140,000 miles over standard mileage, requiring the replacement and re-powering of the drive train and suspension.
The power load gurneys allow for better safety of patients and firefighters, reducing the risk of patients being dropped while on a gurney and being lifted into a medic unit, and minimizing back injuries to firefighters when lifting patients.
This re-chassising and installation of the gurneys are both funded through the equipment reserve fund.
The last capital project is replacing two brush engines, which will cost the department around $260,000.
The department has said both these engines have exceeded their service life, which increases the possibility of an accident while the engines are in use.
The engines will be replaced using the department’s capital fund.
Finally, East Pierce will be once again hosting open house events throughout the year.
Last year, the department did not host an open house because of budget constraints.
The department also said it will increase community outreach events in the western half of its service area, as residents in these areas told East Pierce that open houses only in Bonney Lake do nothing for them.
The budget calls for an additional $14,400 in the overtime budget line item and an additional $10,200 in the open house supplies line item.