Payson will staff its third fire station after all, even if it doesn’t get a federal grant to cover the bulk of the firefighter salaries.
The Payson Town Council on Tuesday gave tentative approval to a revised budget plan that would add three new firefighters to the payroll, station a two-man truck in the new station and cover the rest of the manpower needs with “reserve” firefighters — volunteers paid an hourly rate when they are on calls and who do not get the expensive fringe benefits of full-time firefighters.
As a result, the council voted to give a 90-day notice for the cancellation of its augmented mutual aid agreement with the Hellsgate Fire Department, which will free up the bulk of the money needed to hire new firefighters.
The still-tentative decision largely reversed the budget-based discussion from a week ago, when the council seemed inclined to not actually open the third station unless the town landed a $353,000 federal SAFER grant.
“So many residents would be thrilled to see fire station 13 open,” said Councilor Ed Blair in supporting the proposal —although he also confessed himself confused by the change in the budget picture.
The decision came despite an eye-popping 30 to 40 percent increase in retirement and medical insurance costs, especially for police and fire. The projected benefit costs for 2011-12 made a huge jump in part because the town switched insurance policies last year and used reserves accumulated under the old policy to pay down costs in the current fiscal year.
Town manager Debra Galbraith told the council the town will save $160,000 by canceling its contract with Hellsgate, which will cover the cost of adding two firefighters. Each new firefighter costs about $50,000 in base salary plus about $30,000 worth of benefits.
Town officials later explained they felt more secure about staffing the fire station after discovering the town has accumulated $200,000 in a separate fund from money the Forest Service pays the town when Payson firefighters help fight wildfires.
Payson Fire Chief Marty deMasi said the current plan calls for hiring three full-time firefighters and adding at least three volunteers to the town’s reserve firefighter force. That will provide enough manpower to have two, three-man crews and one, two-man crew on duty around the clock at the town’s three fire stations.
Studies show that firefighters working on two-man crews suffer more work-related injuries and take longer to accomplish certain critical tasks on both fire and medical calls. Such medical calls now account for the overwhelming majority of calls firefighters in Payson handle.
deMasi said the area around the third fire station off Tyler Parkway currently generates the fewest calls, but has generally longer response times. The fire department aims to get the first engine on scene within five minutes of receiving a call 90 percent of the time. However, currently crews only arrive within that window 60 percent of the time. Most of the later arrivals are in the area served by the third fire station, which includes two country clubs at the east edge of town.
Firefighters say they have little chance of preventing the complete loss of a house if they don’t arrive within five minutes of the initial call. In addition, the five-minute window makes a critical difference for some medical cases, like heart attacks and anything that stops a person from breathing.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said the council felt an obligation to the voters to open the third fire station, despite the town’s ongoing financial problems. The town used about $1.5 million in previously approved bond money to build the new fire station and has $500,000 left over to buy and equip a new fire truck, he said.
In the unlikely event the town gets the federal SAFER grant, it can either hire four more firefighters to provide a three-man, around-the-clock crew or stick with a two-man crew and shift money to the reserves. The tentative budget plan envisions a roughly $450,000 reserve — about 3 percent of the $13.5 million general fund balance.
The council created that precarious reserve by deciding to put off most street maintenance for another year and suspending repayment of a $1 million loan from the water department to the general fund.
The council’s decision this week will likely deal a blow to Hellsgate, which will lose the $160,000 annual contract starting in August. Hellsgate, which relies heavily on intensively trained volunteer firefighters, has routinely responded to calls in Payson along its border with Star Valley. The Hellsgate crews will sometimes also take up positions in Payson to handle calls when a fire or medical call has both of Payson’s engines tied up. The anticipated loss of the Payson contract has spurred budget cuts already in the neighboring fire department.
Payson’s fire department budget will increase significantly to accommodate the third fire station. For instance, personnel costs will increase from $2 million this year to $2.9 million next year, a figure which includes the SAFER grant. A portion of that increase comes from the big jump in health and retirement benefits.
Salaries and benefits accounts for 80 percent of the department’s total budget.
Councilor Michael Hughes, who served on the town’s budget committee, said that the committee spent hours working the figures, including the savings of the Hellsgate contract and the possible SAFER grant. “When we got down to brass tacks, the difference between opening the station and leaving it closed was about $58,000.”
Evans said the department may have to find new ways of doing things in order to operate three stations at a cost the town can afford. For instance, the on-duty battalion chief might have to provide the third man on a truck in some cases and the town might have to make greater use of volunteers.
The truck based at the new, third fire station will not only reduce response times on the east side of town, it will also provide a “strategic reserve” when a call ties up two trucks and crews at once.
Councilor Fred Carpenter said the town can always hope it still lands federal help in hiring new firefighters. “The situation becomes quite a bit rosier if we get that SAFER grant.”
Councilor Blair said “I know the citizens are going to really appreciate having Fire Station 13 open. I think that’s going to be wonderful.”