Levy fails, fire budget cuts proposed at $3 million

The East Pierce Fire and Rescue Maintenance and Operations Levy failed to reach the supermajority needed to pass in the Nov. 4 general election. As of Monday the Pierce County Auditor’s website had 14,129 voting to approve,  56.24 percent, 10,994, 43.76 percent voted no.

This is the second time this year the levy received a majority of yes votes from the public, but not the 60 percent of yes votes necessary to renew the levy.

According to East Pierce officials the fire department’s budget will shrink by about $3 million, or 14 percent of the overall budget with cuts affecting all of services including alarm response time to station staffing and public education programs.

According to Fire and Rescue’s 2013 annual report, total 911 calls to the department have been on the rise since 2009. In 2009, East Pierce Fire and Rescue had more than 7,200 calls. In 2013, the department had more than 8,500. Most of those calls, 74 percent, were for medical emergencies and motor vehicle crashes. Only 4 percent of calls in 2013 were fire related.

Recent levy history

During the August primaries, the levy included funds to hire 12 new firefighters and it would have raised an average of $4.8 million per year between 2015 and 2018.

“The levy would have allowed the fire district to maintain the current level of fire, rescue and emergency medical services,” said East Pierce Fire Chief Jerry E. Thorson. “It also would have allowed the district to increase staffing for improved firefighter safety and efficiency.” Thorson said hiring 12 new firefighters would have let East Pierce Fire and Rescue maintain standards set by the National Fire Prevention Association code 1710, which lays out how quickly stations should respond to alarms, prepare for the emergency, and travel to the scene. The levy failed in August with 55.8 percent yes votes and 44.2 no votes.

When the levy failed, Thorson said it was because the public didn’t support increasing staff and adding a new tax level.“I believe that the public appreciates and values our services,” Thorson said. “They just couldn’t approve an increase in their taxes at this time.”For the November general election, East Pierce Fire and Rescue removed the funds for the 12 new firefighters from the levy. This effectively cut the levy back to the levels voters approved two years ago, meaning that if voters passed the levy during the general election, tax levels would not have increased.

The levy would have raised an average of $3.3 million a year for the next four years.

Fire and Rescue hoped that by taking out those funds and leaving the levy at the same level it has been at for several years, voters could justify renewing the levy.

“We thought it would pass because we didn’t add any cost to (the levy),” said Fire Commissioner chair Dale Mitchell. “We just changed it from a two-year levy to a four-year levy. But sometimes these things happen.”

What will get cut?

The fire commissioners will decide what will be cut from the Fire and Rescue budget by November 18.

Thorson said without the levy, the budget has been cut by more than $3 million dollars, or 14 percent of the budget.

Just under 85 percent of last year’s total budget went to personnel costs, according to East Pierce’s 2013 annual report. 11 percent of the budget was spent on supplies and public services, 4 percent on governmental agreements like dispatch agency fees, and about half a percent went to capital leases and debt.

At the same time, nearly 83 percent of Fire and Rescue’s revenue comes from property taxes and the levy, according the 2013 annual report. Just over 9 percent came from emergency aid fees, and almost 8 percent comes from grants and surplus sales.

With the department’s major revenue stream cut, and with most of the budget allotted to personnel, Mitchell said that the department has limited options for what programs will be cut for next year’s budget.

“We are looking at bare essentials all the way through,” Mitchell said. The commissioners are looking at cutting public education programs like CPR training and Life and Safety Clowns program.

In 2013, Fire and Rescue gave CPR training to more than 700 adults and 1400 middle and high school students.

Fire and Rescue also fitted and sold nearly 400 bike and sports helmets and 250 lifejackets.

Commissioners are also looking at what the department calls “rolling brownouts,” which means that different fire stations will be closed on specific days, or only be open for part of the day, to reduce staffing and overtime.

“Our staffing level reduction will save money, however it means that we will frequently have to close an engine or medic unit for the day. In some cases, an entire station will be closed for the day,” said Thorson. “It will definitely have an effect on our entire response plan and will result in slower response times for emergencies.”

Finally, the commissioners have to look at personnel.

“The last thing we want to do is lay anyone off,” said Mitchell. Instead, he explained that several open positions, like the assistant chief position and even volunteer positions, will remain unfilled for the time being.