There comes a time when frustration causes one to write to one’s community. When things seem out of control, you expect some help from those you know. And then, when help can be given, yet is mysteriously denied, frustration only grows.
The Pine Strawberry Fire Board approved a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2009 that did not include any employee raises. The board cited its desire to help fellow community members and neighbors by easing the property tax burden of Pine Strawberry residents during these troubling economic times. It was a logical, wise and fiscally-appropriate decision.
Yet, at the Oct. 22 fire board meeting, in a 3-2 vote, the board approved the fire chief’s recommendation to create three new positions of battalion chief. Three internal employees will be promoted to fill the newly-created battalion chief positions. These internal promotions to battalion chief will require six additional promotions: Three captains to fill the newly-created positions of battalion chief and three engineers to fill the vacancies of those promoted to captain. All of these promotions include pay raises. It begs the question: Will three new employees be hired in the near future to replace the vacant engineer positions?
These six promotions will create a top-heavy department with 10 supervisors overseeing 12 operational personnel. Also, the creation of these new battalion chief positions will also create additional overtime expenditures, which will be allocated to the higher-paid employees of the department.
With this in mind, firefighters and community members are confused as to why three board members would vote yes, and effectively cancel the previous fiscally wise board decision of no pay raises for the 2009-2010 budget year. What happened to easing the property tax burden of our community and neighbors?
Property values are down 20 to 30 percent in Gila County. People are out of work, and others are working fewer hours so their fellow workers can maintain an income. Arizona schools are looking at a mandated 10 to 15 percent cut in their budgets. For Pine Strawberry School, this means a $400,000-$500,000 budget cut, which means possible loss of income for the people in our community or loss of school programs. The Pine Strawberry Food Bank has seen a significant increase in people coming to them for help. Many neighbors are on fixed incomes, and for them, the fire chief’s recommendation and fire board approval, is especially misguided in these hard economic times.
One reason given by the fire chief for the promotions is that he is having a difficult time managing staff assignments. Yet, the chief has found time to leave the district for up to two weeks at a time for out-of-district wildland fire assignments. The chief has also found time to work additional 24-hour fill-in shifts. Overtime compensation is paid to the fire chief for the time spent on wildland fires and for fill-in shift work. Would a time management course might be less expensive for taxpayers than the creation of three new positions?
If the board had replaced the retired business manager, as originally intended, instead of allowing the chief to attempt to perform, or delegate, those accounting duties, would the chief have more time and possibly agree that these internal promotions are unnecessary?
The current captains have served as acting fire chief while the chief was away, and have done a fine job. Why the promotions now? Let’s continue to run the department as is until better fiscal times. The current 2009-2010 budget is based on Gila County’s 2007 property tax base, which increased as property values skyrocketed. In two years, the fire district will have to function with a more limited budget when the Gila County assessor’s office will most likely be forced to set property values in line with current economic conditions. The only way to meet our expanded staffing at that time will be to increase the tax rate. Therefore, it makes no sense to raise expenditures unnecessarily at this time.
Finally, to the captains who will be asked to accept the promotions, do you want to increase the burden on your fellow community members and neighbors? As you know, it’s usually middle management who suffer job loss when budget cuts must be made.
Thank you, to the two board members who upheld their previous vote not to impose a tax increase that would be passed on to the community.
To the board members who voted yes on the fire chief’s recommendation, please revisit this issue and consider changing your vote. It’s not too late to do what’s best for the fire department and your community.