The recession is affecting public safety organizations around the state, including Star Valley.
The Hellsgate Fire District is slumping along in anticipation of the possibility of losing an annual contract with the Town of Payson fire department, county property devaluations and the rising costs of doing business.
To cut spending, the Hellsgate Fire Board on Wednesday approved a resolution that cuts the accrual rate for employees’ paid time off in half for the next 18 months.
The change does not affect time already accumulated.
But for a district that hasn’t offered raises in a year, has low pay to begin with and requires its few full-time staffers to cover double and sometimes triple duties, paid time off (PTO) is one of the few luxuries.
“Wages are low enough that some employees qualify for some state programs,” said Chief Gary Hatch. “Everyone thinks they are highly paid, but they are not highly paid.”
The average engineer is hired on at $11 an hour.
While cutting PTO is a blow, Hatch said it is better than cutting salaries.
Hellsgate’s current budget difficulties started more than a year ago, when Hatch learned the Payson Fire Department could end its contract with Hellsgate that provided “automatic response” to fire and medical calls on Payson’s eastern border and provided backup in town for larger calls.
“It could be a tremendous loss with the Payson contract,” he said.
Under the $160,000 contract, Hellsgate answered about 153 calls a year. By June 1, however, Payson may end that contract if it can staff a new station built off Tyler Parkway. With the new station, the PFD would no longer need Hellsgate to respond to calls automatically, since it would have the personnel to do it.
“They haven’t officially ended the contract,” Hatch said, “We are still pushing for them to continue it another year.”
Since Hellsgate firefighters are ready to respond at all times, it does not cost any more to respond to calls, however, with call volume expected to drop, the cost per call should rise.
To curb spending, Hellsgate laid off its battalion chief, sold a fire truck, downsized its administrative offices and suspended raises.
The district is also considering switching to a squad response, where a pickup truck is sent for medical calls, not a fire engine.
Hatch said all of the measures were designed to save taxpayer money without cutting services.
“This is another way to reduce overall costs of the district during the current times,” he said of the PTO cut.
Currently, the district has 10 full-time employees and 30 on-call volunteers. The PTO cut only affects full-time staffers, since volunteers do not receive benefits. Volunteers are paid a dollar for every hour they work at the station and minimum wage during calls.
How much the district will save from the PTO cut is unknown, Hatch said. The real cost saving will come when the district does not have to cover a full-time employee when they go on leave, with another employee getting paid overtime to cover their shift.
A standard engineer receives 11 PTO days a year, gaining more time every five years.
Firefighters are allowed to bank those hours from year to year to deal with catastrophic injury.
By retirement, an employee is entitled to 50 percent of those hours when they leave. And if an employee retires after working 20-plus years, they are entitled to 75 percent of those hours.
Hatch has worked 29 years with the district and is expected to retire in 2015. He has 540 PTO hours banked and receives an additional 320 hours a year.
To burn off some of those hours, Hatch has already taken several vacations this year.
While the district is looking for additional creative ways to cut spending, Hatch said he anticipates asking the board for a 3 percent raise for full-time employees since they have not received a raise since 2009.
“We are not working to make $35 an hour,” he said.
“Most of these guys don’t do this job for the money.”
The district has already cut expenses by 10 percent this year; therefore, Hatch said there would be no tax increase in next year’s budget.
Nearly half of the district’s revenue comes from taxes with the rest from fighting wildland fires and grants.