Critics Fear Fire Station Could Break The Budget

Cost of staffing Payson’s third fire station spurs questions and Hellsgate Fire Department lurches toward financial crisis

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Persistent concerns about the cost of staffing a third Payson fire station have roiled candidate forms, but generated no rifts between the four candidates.

The town has been dogged by questions about whether it can afford to hire the six to nine new firefighters necessary to staff a single additional fire truck based in the $1.5 million fire station to serve the town’s east side.

Starting next year, the town would have to come up with an extra $500,000 to $750,000 to hire enough firefighters to staff the third station.

That contrasts with the town’s current $130,000 contract with the neighboring Hellsgate Fire Department to respond to calls in the area that will be served by the new station.

Payson hopes to get federal grants to offset the cost of the additional firefighters. Each firefighter costs the town $50,000 to $75,000 annually, including benefits. Council candidates say that the town might have to mothball the new station and wait for the economy to recover if it can’t land the federal grant.

“Even if it sits there empty, we have saved half a million dollars” on the land cost alone, said Vice Mayor Mike Vogel at a recent candidates forum.

Vogel said that the town has a legal and moral obligation to follow through on the promises it made to people who supported the 2003 bond issue to build the station.

The issue has acquired new urgency because the new fire station sits right next to the proposed location of a new, ASU college campus, which would likely include dorms, a convention hotel and other businesses.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said “the voters of the town of Payson said build a station. We’re going to follow that dictate. Within the budget constraints that we have, we’re going to figure out how to get the maximum benefit. We’ll use the money prudently, even if we have to mothball” the new station at the outset.

However, the threat of losing the $130,000 contract with Payson has complicated an underlying budget crisis for Hellsgate, which relies much more heavily on volunteer firefighters than neighboring Payson.

Hellsgate and Payson at one point jointly applied for a federal grant to build a new, shared fire station in Star Valley. But Payson pulled out of those talks to pursue its own station.

Vogel has said those talks “fell apart” because Hellsgate made unreasonable demands. Hellsgate officials have said they didn’t even know the talks had failed until they learned the Payson council had approved construction of a new fire station.

Vogel says the $130,000 savings on the mutual aid contract will help Payson staff its own fire station. That money would pay for two full-time firefighters, although Payson would need six to nine new firefighters to man a single truck around the clock.

However, Evans said Payson will not simply pull the plug on its financial relationship with Hellsgate.

“We’re inextricably tied to our neighbors,” said Evans. “Their financial well-being and ours are tied together. We can’t allow them to fail and succeed ourselves. We will find some amicable solution that will meet their needs and at the same time meet our need.”

Payson’s plan to open a third fire station comes in the midst of festering budget problems. The town cut millions from the budget in the current fiscal year, but still had to go back and cut more in December as tax revenues continued to dwindle.

The council in December directed town staff to stay home without pay two days a month and sharply limited overtime and holiday pay — provisions that hit the police and fire departments especially hard. The fire department went from three to two men on a truck for many shifts. Moreover, the schedule for the 21 full-time firefighters had built in two days of overtime each month for each firefighter. As a result, the furloughs resulted in a 15 percent pay cut for most firefighters.

If Payson returns to its three-man-per-truck standard, the new station would require the town to increase the number of firefighters from the present 21 to 30 — an increase of 43 percent. If the town sticks with two firefighters per truck, it would result in a staffing increase of 29 percent.

Currently, the department’s budget stands at about $2.9 million.

If the town offered the same amount of administrative and operations support for the new firefighters as it does for the existing stations, it would boost the overall budget by a third — or about $1 million.

That contrasts sharply with the $130,000 cost of the mutual aid agreement with Hellsgate. However, advocates for the new station say that crews dispatched from the new station would arrive on scene one to three minutes sooner than the Hellsgate crews do now along the town’s eastern edge. Two minutes can easily prove fatal on some medical calls, which now comprise the vast majority of fire department calls. Firefighters say that a two-minute delay can also make the difference in whether crews can save a burning house.

Hellsgate currently answers emergency calls in Payson about 120 times each year, often reporting to a Payson fire station to stand by for additional calls when the Payson crew responds to an emergency medical call. Payson crews provide backup for Hellsgate five or six times annually, according to figures used when the Payson council approved the latest extension of the mutual aid contract.

Hellsgate crews also respond directly to fires, especially in areas of Payson closer to Hellsgate’s Star Valley station than to Payson’s Main Street or Rancho Road stations. However, Payson has only a handful of house fires each year.

Payson fire officials have estimated that for many calls in areas like Chaparral Pines, the agreement with Hellsgate crews cuts about two minutes off the response time, compared to relying on the existing Payson stations. Even so, many of the responses fall outside Payson’s goal of keeping all response times below five minutes.

Fire officials have estimated the new, Payson fire station at Highway 260 and Tyler Parkway could cut another minute or two off response times.

The town will rely on a sales tax surcharge approved by the voters in 2003 to pay for the fire station. That measure slapped a .12 of a cent surcharge on sales taxes and brings in about $350,000 per year, which was supposed to include the third fire station at the east end of town. The bonds have already financed some $2 million in police and fire improvements, but the town ran out of money before it could start on that third fire station.

So the council each year has approved the backup contract with Hellsgate, to compensate for the lack of a third fire station.

However, Vogel took the lead in working out plans to build the third station. He took advantage of the real estate collapse to negotiate a nearly $500,000 discount on the cost of the land and building plans and hopes to benefit from a construction industry slump that has resulted in sometimes dramatically lower bids than normal for construction projects.

The town hired a bond consultant who put together a deal to issue $1.5 million in 7.6-year bonds with an interest rate of 3.3 percent.

However, the potentially substantial cost of staffing that fire station has spurred sharp questions from some quarters — as has the effect of the withdrawal from the mutual aid agreement on Hellsgate’s finances.

Asked to explain the dispute at a recent candidate forum, Vogel said “How do I explain this in a way that’s politically correct?”

Then he plunged ahead. “The first two meetings we made zero progress. They said ‘you build it, you give it to us, we’ll lease it to you — and you provide half the staff.’”

Vogel said he walked away from the talks because it was a bad deal for Payson and that it should have come as no surprise to Hellsgate that the town had gone its own way.

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