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Fire district invites public to comment on budget

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By Vicky Gits

A public hearing on the fire district’s draft 2009 budget attracted a handful of citizens to the department auditorium on a cold and windy Wednesday night Nov. 12.

But officials hope attendance will increase as people get accustomed to the budget process being open to the public.

“This is the first-ever public hearing on the budget the district has ever had,” said Charles Simons, a member of the Evergreen Fire Protection District board. “It’ll grow.”

The biggest budget news, pending budget approval, was the decision to allocate about $400,000 to purchase one more tanker truck to add to the fleet of six.

The district’s projected $4.1 million revenue in 2009 is financed by every property owner in the fire protection district. The money for Evergreen Fire/Rescue comes from a voter-approved property tax of 9.348 mills, meaning the owner of a home valued at $250,000 pays about $186 a year for fire protection.

All of the board members, about five members of the public and several members of the fire department staff, including finance director Brent Worthington and Fire Chief Garry DeJong, attended Wednesday night’s meeting to present the draft budget and answer questions.

The board is expected to complete the budget in another week and discuss it at the Nov. 19 board meeting, at 7 p.m. Wednesday at district headquarters, 1802 Bergen Parkway. Public comments will be taken.

The budget is based on the same assessed valuation as last year, so the revenue is not expected to change. (Property is re-assessed every two years.)

The version of the budget presented at Wednesday’s meeting was virtually the same as the one released on the fire department website in mid-October.

DeJong called attention to the fact that the combined outlay for salaries, wages and benefits was reduced by about $100,000 between 2008 and 2009, without sacrificing a 3.5 percent cost-of-living increase. Some of the salary decrease has to do with the board’s decision to reduce the salaries of the part-time finance and HR directors.

More salary savings came from asking division managers to control overtime and from stricter controls over merit increases, DeJong said.

In 2009, the number of employees is expected to stay the same, at 31 full-time and four part-time, DeJong said. Salaries are the biggest single expense, at $1.8 million a year, which includes $30,000 in merit pay to be distributed on a one-time basis at the discretion of the chief.

The board decided earlier this year to make merit awards one-time bonuses rather than increases that continue in perpetuity.

Volunteer pension fund

The payroll also includes a contribution of $150,000 a year to the volunteer pension fund and $131,000 to the 457(e) plan, which is a tax-free benefit.

(The Evergreen fire district has a paid chief and ambulance staff, but the firefighting operation is staffed almost entirely by 85 volunteers who receive a small pension for their service.)

Mike Novick, the officer in charge of the pension committee of the volunteer firefighters’ organization, questioned why there was no increase from 2008 to 2009 in the amount budgeted ($150,000) for volunteer pensions.

DeJong said there had been a $25,000 increase in the pension contribution in 2008 and that he expected to revisit the topic in the spring, after receiving a new actuarial study.

Novick also questioned whether it was necessary to have two dispatchers on duty 24 hours a day, especially on the graveyard shift. He asked whether they could be assigned to take care of some routine tasks during their down time on behalf of the volunteers, who aren’t paid and have to get up and go to work in the morning.

“When we asked for the bond issue, we sold this service (24-hour dispatch) to the community, and we need to maintain that,” DeJong said.

He said that people had been assigned additional tasks to help ease the workload on volunteers. “It’s not fair to say they aren’t doing anything else. It’s a fair question to ask what else they can do,” he said.

Board member George Goldbach questioned the $50,000 budget allocation for legal services provided by Collins Cockrel and Cole of Lakewood on a contract services basis.

DeJong said the legal budget was reduced from $54,000 in 2008 to $50,000 in 2009, and that he expected the amount possibly to go lower. In 2008, the district’s legal costs were affected by a recall election and real estate matters.

Big-ticket items

The chief explained that a major component of the expense of operating a fire department is budgeting for strategic capital expenses, or big-ticket items such as fire trucks, ambulances and radios.

This year the department is looking at spending more than $100,000 to upgrade its radio hardware and antennas for the long term. In addition, it has budgeted $400,000 to pay for a new tanker truck capable of delivering 1,500 to 3,000 gallons in one load.

The tanker funds will come out of the apparatus replacement fund, which stands at $1.5 million. The budget anticipates a $375,000 contribution to the apparatus replacement fund in 2009, down from

$379,000 in 2008.

The strategic capital fund allocation is $345,000 in 2009, down from $379,000 in 2008.

The department will pay $450,000 into the emergency services fund to pay for the expected shortfall between the cost of providing ambulance service and the level of reimbursement from hospitals and insurance companies.

Since the majority of homes in the district lack access to fire hydrants, the department regularly sends all of its six tankers to handle a house fire, said board member George Kling.