Facing a year of potentially devastating budget cuts after losing a $160,000 contract with Payson and assessed evaluations falling an estimated 15 percent, the Hellsgate Fire Department knows it needs to make cuts.
Three candidates running for two open seats on the Hellsgate Fire District board have varying ideas on where to make those cutbacks. All agree that personnel reductions are the worst option, but disagree on how to cut a possible $300,000.
This election marks the first time incumbents Charlie Conover and Richard Pinkerton have competition. Retired anesthesiologist Phon Sutton is running on the platform of cost cutting.
Unlike the other two candidates, Sutton said he would like to see the district’s tax rate go down even though assessed evaluations are also dropping.
Next year, the district is expecting a 15-percent decrease in assessed valuations, said Hellsgate Fire Chief Gary Hatch. If the district keeps its current tax rate of $28 per hundred thousand, it would lose $144,000. Add that to the $160,000 contract with Payson that is expected to expire at the end of June 2011, and Hatch is looking at more than $300,000 in cuts.
Hatch would like to see the tax rate raised to its maximum of $32.50 per hundred thousand of property valuation, which would still leave the district short $20,000 over this year’s tax revenue.
“We all know the shrinking budget is the No. 1 issue,” Hatch said, but so is maintaining staff levels and equipment. “The cost of doing business is skyrocketing,” he said.
Sutton is the only candidate who said he is adamantly opposed to raising the tax rate. Pinkerton and Conover said they are open to raising the rate if necessary.
“I am running to add more emphasis on trying to save a buck here and there for the taxpayer,” Sutton said. “This is a time when many people are struggling to keep their homes and buy clothes for their kids.”
Conover, a retired firefighter with the Glendale Fire Department, said with cuts imminent, the district is going to have to be creative to maintain its service levels.
For the last six years, Conover has worked with board president Pinkerton and Hatch to raise the district’s service standards. Today, all trucks carry two full-time firefighters/EMTs and two reserves. In addition, two engineers are studying to become paramedics, who could step in when the existing captains retire. The current board is also working hard to finish a five-year plan.
The district may have to make cuts that could affect the 13 communities some 42 Hellsgate firefighters work hard to protect.
“We are going to have to find a balance,” Conover said, between what to save and what to toss out.
Pinkerton said he wants to keep the tax rate down, but also wants to maintain “the utmost level of service.” If necessary, he would agree to a tax increase. “The cuts are not going to come from personnel,” he said. “As far as full-time employees, it would be almost impossible to cut anyone.”
Conover said he is focused on good training and equipment for the district.
All three candidates agreed that staffing cuts are unlikely, so creative solutions to the district’s budget hole are necessary. Pinkerton suggested the district put in for more grants.
Sutton would look at every expense and see if it directly benefits the stockholders. If it doesn’t, then cut it. “I won’t cut a person, but I might not replace them,” he said.
Conover said he would like to merge with other neighboring fire districts, which could reduce costs and increase service. “This would give us a bigger budget,” he said, “and provide paramedics to the whole area.”
This year, the district made several cost-saving changes. The department switched from using a large engine to a pickup truck for medical calls, and no longer automatically responds to first-alarm calls in Payson, unless Payson calls for backup.
These are decisions Pinkerton and Conover voted to approve as board members.
Sutton said while he does not have the record of accomplishment of the incumbents, he never would have allowed the department to rent an office space, as it did for a number of years off Highway 260.
Only last year did the administrative staff move from that office back to the station, a huge cost savings.
Each of the candidates has slightly varying ideas on the relationship between the board and Chief Hatch.
Pinkerton said he has always steered the board in the direction of letting Hatch cover the needs of the district with the board overseeing his decisions.
“He knows the needs of the department and he may see an issue we don’t,” he said. “But if a board member has an issue, it gets on the agenda.”
Conover said he does not want to micromanage the chief, and believes in giving him space to make the right decisions for the district.
Sutton said while the chief has done a great job, he believes board members should “provide independent oversight representing the stakeholders and not just be a loyal, agreeable member of the team.”
Sending board members to the Arizona Fire District Association’s training is another area where the candidates differ. Last year, the district agreed to cut training back from two seminars a year to one.
Pinkerton said he believes in the training because it gives board members new information that helps the district function better. He is in favor of sending more board members to training sessions.
Sutton said only service providers should attend training courses. “We don’t pay for anyone to go to a meeting that doesn’t ride on a truck,” he said.
Conover said he was willing to explore the option of cutting the other training course if it could help the district.
Public meeting for candidates
Voting in the general election ends on Tuesday, Nov. 2. Pinkerton and Conover will hold a public meeting to introduce themselves to the community and answer questions on Oct 27, at 6:30 p.m.