News

Fire district works to trim its expenses

Worried about the present but equally anxious about the future, Fire District 7 is attempting the near-impossible in its 2003 budget — reduce expenses now and, despite funding problems, also put away more than usual in a rainy day fund.

The district’s $8.47 million proposed budget appears to succeed in both areas — the budget not only falls well below projected revenues, there is currently a projected $484,000 surplus budgeted in. On average, the district usually only budgets between $150,000 and $200,000 in what it calls “unencumbered funds.”

However, as Fire Chief Mike Brown pointed out in his budget summary, that financial pad is going to become crucial if cuts in the equipment maintenance funds result in costly emergency repairs in the next year.

The district’s 2003 budget is actually smaller than its 2002 budget, thanks to proposed cuts in nearly every funding area — including maintenance. Among the cuts currently being considered are the following:

*no courier or cleaning services for the district’s administrative offices

*no capital purchases (except for the breathing apparatus grant purchase, which is considered separate from the rest of the budget)

*eliminating nearly all preventative maintenance on equipment, except for necessary repairs

*no vehicle replacement or refurbishment (except for one medic vehicle)

*elimination of volunteer firefighter local benefits

This last item was the one which drew the most feedback at the district board of commissioners’ first public budget hearing, held last Thursday night.

Although the district only spent $31,198 last year on the volunteer bonuses, those bonuses constitute the only monetary reward the volunteers earn. Because of that, the fire commissioners specifically introduced the item for discussion among the dozen or so district employees who attended the hearing. The commissioners said they believed the cut was in the best interest of the district, but didn’t want the volunteers to feel cheated when the cut was made public.

“That was our concern — chomping it off without any communication,” said Commissioner Dusty Wiley.

However, only one volunteer firefighter — Lt. Mike Smith — got up to speak on the issue and he wholeheartedly endorsed the potential cut. He also said his opinion was that of the majority of volunteers.

“If you’re here for the benefit of the money, you shouldn’t be here,” said Smith, a 10-year veteran. “If the money can be better spent elsewhere, it should be.”

The only other audience member who got up to speak —volunteer firefighter Dale Bradford — asked if there wasn’t room for even more budget cuts. Specifically, he questioned the need to fund maintenance for rural volunteer station which are, as he claimed, only used once every seven or 10 years.

“It seems to me it’s quite a bit of money that’s being spent for no reason,” Bradford said.

The commissioners and Chief Mike Brown said station closures are a possibility, but not in this budget cycle.

Commission president Rick Metzger said the district has been considering putting together a committee to look for redundant or underutilized stations. The district has acquired numerous stations through mergers and annexations, and there is the possibility unnecessary stations exist.

However, Chief Brown pointed out the district’s Level 4 fire insurance rating and said the rarely used rural stations were largely responsible for maintaining that rating. Brown said if stations closed, insurance premiums for the district’s rural customers would likely jump significantly.

“Having those tenders out there make a big difference in our ability to do our job,” said Lt. Shane Jones. “It really comes into play.”

Metzger and the rest of the commission agreed.

“There may very well be a time that fiscal limitations prevent us from keeping those open, and we will have to look at that,” he said.

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