The East County Fire and Rescue Commission is expected to vote tonight on its proposed 2015 budget. If approved as presented, three of its paid firefighters will lose their full-time jobs at the end of the year.
East County Fire and Rescue Commissioners held a special workshop Nov. 10 to review the budget and take comments from the public.
“We are tight,” said Commissioner Martha Martin. “We have to look at a budget, and there’s competing interests involved. We have to see who wants what, how much, and can we afford it based on the limited amount of money we have.”
The proposed $2.5 million 2015 budget includes $640,315 in salary costs for the department’s six full-time firefighters, two full-time chief officers and one full-time office manager. There is also $154,589 to support the wages of five part-time firefighters.
These numbers include a cost of living adjustment for all ECFR employees of 2.6 percent — equal to approximately $15,421 — a placeholder as contract discussions are currently underway between the firefighters’ union and the district.
Three current firefighter positions, which had been funded for the past three years through a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are not included in the proposed budget and stand to be eliminated.
Chief Scott Koehler estimates that it would take an additional $208,000 to continue to employ all three SAFER grant firefighters.
Although no decisions were made during the Nov. 10 workshop, a number of options for how the budget might be trimmed or financially enhanced were discussed.
Topics ranged from the benefits and drawbacks of eliminating one of the district’s paid chief positions, to selling one or more of its six fire stations.
Martin said the salaries and benefits of the chief and assistant chief positions together cost the district $262,329 — about 25 percent of its total payroll expenses.
“That’s a lot,” she said. “If you are doing business, you are thinking about that 25 percent for two positions,” she said. “Do we need two chiefs? That’s just a question that is being posed.”
If one of the chief positions is eliminated, the contract calls for a six-month severance package.
“Don’t the citizens want a functioning fire department?” asked Commissioner Jack Hoober. “We can only pare down so far. Beyond that we are shooting ourselves in the foot, and not offering (ECFR district residents) the maximum amount of fire protection that we could offer.”
The fire chief oversees the administrative duties associated with operating the ECFR organization, including budgets, long-term planning and disaster preparedness. The assistant chief takes care of the day-to-day operations.
“I don’t think our two (chief positions) is out of line in terms of operating requirements,” Koehler said. “If you look at other fire agencies, I think you will find that we are staffed on the low side for chief officers.”
Comments also touched on the possibility of selling Station 96, a residential house located in rural Bear Prairie, or Station 95, which is located on 39th Street in the city of Washougal.
One of the district’s volunteer firefighters, Frank Billington, lives rent-free in the Bear Prairie station with his family in exchange for his service and upkeep of the property. The district paid $500,000 for the house in 2008. It’s worth substantially less today.
“We made a commitment to those people in [the Bear Prairie] area,” said Commissioner Vic Rasmussen. “That makes a difference in their insurance. (Billington) is busy. That guy is a super volunteer.”
Rasmussen said he is concerned about the impact on ECFR’s service level if Station 96 is sold.
“Do you want someone to die, because it’s going to take someone an extra 10 minutes to get up there?” he questioned. “I don’t think so.”
Koehler said Billington, a certified firefighter and first responder, taps out to more calls in a year than the highest responding paid ECFR firefighter.
“(Station 96) has become such a boon to us, and it is such a benefit to that community and most of the district,” he said. “If you consider that we paid $500,000 for that house, we can’t build a fire station of any substance for under $1 million.”
Over the years, ECFR has put nearly $1 million into Station 95, its former headquarters. Years ago, growth was predicted for that area that never came to fruition. The station is currently not staffed, but does house an engine and a water tender.
The last purchase offer ECFR received on it was for $350,000.
“We can sell (Station 95) for one-third of what it’s worth,” Koehler said. “That will buy us one firefighter for about three or four years, or it will buy us three firefighters for one year. If we lose that building, we lose our response capability going east.”
District resident Sheldon Tyler suggested that ECFR may want to consider taking a loss on the property.
“I look at it and I kind of say, ‘I’ve bought some stuff thinking, why did I buy that?’ The best thing to do is get rid of it and move on,” he said. “If it’s not in the right location, would it be worthwhile to sell it now and get 30 cents on the dollar, and buy a piece of property that’s in the right location that’s going to increase in value over the years?”
Comments also touched on eliminating smaller expenses from the budget, including the $7,500 for commissioners’ mileage, meals, lodging and tuition to attend training opportunities and conferences.
Martin questioned why those line items were included in the 2015 proposal, when they had not been a part of recent years’ budgets.
Koehler responded that the decision was in part related to the fact that a new commissioner will be joining the group in December, to succeed Gary Larson who resigned in October. Two candidates will be interviewed tonight.
“Since we have a new commissioner coming in and I don’t know what their intent is, and since you have gone several years without any training, and it became obvious that we were not going to save those three positions, I put some money back in,” he said.
Hoober commented that the commission is working to make the best use of the district’s limited financial resources.
“We are trying to determine a budget that will protect the public, not the one that will make everybody happy with the numbers,” he said. “We are doing the best we can with a limited amount of money.”
Tonight’s commission meeting begins at 7 p.m., at Station 91, 600 N.E. 267th Ave., Camas.