Seated in his new, cramped office at the fire station, Hellsgate Fire Chief Gary Hatch said the fire department is in a no-win situation.
Due to budget concerns, the department just laid off its battalion chief, Doug Blazer, sold off a fire truck, downsized office space and could lose its contract with Payson Fire indefinitely.
“It is going to be sad losing Doug,” Hatch said. “We are trying to help him out as much as we can” to find a new job.
Blazer was cut to save three lower position employees, however, Hatch will now have to pick up the added responsibilities of Blazer’s position, adding to his already full job.
Besides covering the district when Hatch was off, Blazer was in charge of running the department’s grant program. Every year, it took Blazer months to apply for the fuel reductions grant and monitor the program, which garnered the department almost $500,000 last year. Over the last four years, the program brought in close to a million.
With Blazer gone, it will be hard for Hatch to find time in his schedule to run the labor intensive program, which could mean a huge cut in the department’s budget.
On top of losing Blazer, the department is also bracing to lose its contract with Payson if it decides to go ahead with plans to build a new fire station. Last year, Payson paid Hellsgate $130,000 for automatic aid assistance for 153 calls in Payson.
Hatch is hopeful that Hellsgate can extend a contract with Payson through fiscal year 2011. While Hellsgate is scheduled to get $180,000 for next year, Hatch has offered to do it for $160,000.
Losing Payson will have huge budget ramifications for the department. Hatch said he is already planning several years out so the department can handle the drop in revenue.
The department has already sold off an older engine and service vehicle and is switching to a squad response, where a pickup truck is sent for medical calls, not an expensive fire engine.
Blazer and the administrative staff recently moved back into the station 21 after it became too expensive to lease a property off Highway 260.
Several captains were forced to move their offices upstairs to cubicles to make room for the additional staff.
Blazer said although the department outgrew station 21 seven years ago, they are planning to stay put.
“It has been a bit stressful, but we do this because we love serving the community,” he said. “There have not been any complaints” about the move.
With revenues dropping along with home values falling an expected 20 percent, the department is asking for a tax increase of 10 cents for every $100.
Therefore, for a home valued at $200,000, this means an additional $20 a year.
“If we don’t do it, then we have to look at layoffs,” he said. “We are trying to keep it as low as we can.”
Currently, it costs Hellsgate $2,600 per call. Last year, the department responded to 400 calls in the 38-square-mile district.
Hatch said because the district has a low call volume, the cost per call is higher than in Phoenix, where it costs around $1,100 a call, with the average station responding to 2,300 calls a year.
In 1994, the cost per call was even higher in Hellsgate at around $3,500 because of an even lower call volume.
Since the department is required to be ready at all times, it does not cost anymore to respond to more calls.