Hellsgate Fire Faces Layoffs

Even after property tax rise, 10% shortfall looms

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Facing a $176,000 deficit next year, the Hellsgate Fire Department is asking for the maximum increase in its assessed property tax.

If the 9.8 percent increase is approved, the department will still face a $92,000 shortfall in its nearly million-dollar budget.

Without a federal grant to help cover the difference, the department will have to lay off four engineers, said Fire Chief Gary Hatch.

The fire department, which covers Star Valley and Tonto Village, gets the majority of its revenue from an assessed rate. As property values have declined, the fire department has asked for an increase in the rate. Watching their tax bill go up while their home value plummets has frustrated homeowners, Hatch said.

However, devaluation by the assessor and increased operating costs mean the department has to do more with less.

“We are trying in every way we can to save money,” he said.

Next year, a person who owns a $100,000 home will pay $356.70 to the fire district, based on a tax rate of $3.567 per $100 assessed value.

The Gila County Board of Supervisors sets the rate each year based on a request from the fire district’s board of directors.

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Gary Hatch Hellsgate fire chief

This year’s maximum rate allowed by the state was $3.25 per $100 assessed value.

A recent bill, however, lets a fire department ask for more.

This year’s 19.8 percent drop in property values in the district means the department would lose $152,000 if it didn’t raise the rate, Hatch said.

The district is already losing $24,300 as the result of a cut in the Arizona Fire District Assistance Tax.

Hatch said he has not received many complaints from residents because the alternative is cutting services.

The district could stop responding to medical calls, he said, since the law only mandates that the district’s trucks show up at fires, he said. On average, medical problems account for 72 percent of the department’s calls.

“No one has ever said to stop going on medical calls,” he said.

Because of budget cuts, Hatch has notified four engineers who drive the trucks that they could face layoffs on May 29 if the department cannot find alternative funding.

Hatch has applied for a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant, which could cover the engineers’ wages for four years and revive the battalion chief position the department cut several years ago due to budget woes.

SAFER is the same grant Payson Fire Department sought unsuccessfully to fully staff the truck in the new, third fire station.

Hellsgate’s budget next year is expected to hover just under a million, down from last year’s $1.1 million budget.

The department has already pared down costs by decreasing fuel usage and the overtime budget while also increasing employee pension and insurance costs.

Surprisingly, workers compensation claims have fallen since the department let firefighters go to the gym while on duty.

For the last 2.5 years, firefighters have driven into Payson for 1.5-hour workouts. While it may seem like the department loses money by letting firefighters drive an engine eight miles to Payson, it has actually saved money because work-related injuries have plummeted.

“By allowing that truck to run up and down the road once every two days to go into town to let them work out, literally, we have cut workers compensation $15,000 in the last two years,” he said.

The department does not cover gym memberships.

New engine

The department has put off buying a new engine for three years. Recently, however, engine 212’s motor died. Replacement cost is $42,000 for a motor and transmission.

“There comes a time when you say it is just not worth it and this is a 1989 (engine) that we are losing that we only paid $12,000 for three years ago.”

The department’s board approved buying a new engine for no more than $420,000, financed over 10 years at 3.25 percent.

Once purchased, the new engine will become the department’s “front line” or primary engine. The existing ladder truck will serve as a backup.

“We don’t run that hard here, so our goal is to make this new truck last 25 years as a front line truck and then go into reserves.”

The ladder truck is expected to run another 15 years.

Some residents have questioned why the department needs a ladder truck at all.

Hatch said four commercial buildings and seven homes in the district would require a ladder truck in case of a fire.

In addition, “Payson has a ladder and with a ladder you are always supposed to have a backup. We fulfill their need for a backup and our need for a backup.”

Cutting costs

To cut costs, the district experimented with using a pickup truck for medical calls.

For 90 days, paramedics used a Ford F-550 instead of the ladder truck.

With all the necessary gear, the pickup averaged 5.5 miles per gallon while the ladder averages 6.2 miles per gallon. Factor in maintenance and the pickup cost just as much to run as the ladder truck, Hatch said.

However, if firefighters took the ladder truck on a call they could respond to a fire call without returning to the station.

“We tried to see and it blew me away because I thought the Ford would be getting 10 miles to the gallon and we kept track of 90 days and it averaged out to 5.5 miles.”

The department is also trading in a command vehicle that gets 13 miles per gallon for a new Ford Explorer that averages 20 miles per gallon.

Hatch said he even considered switching command vehicles from a pickup truck to a Toyota Prius.

“That is how hungry we are to save taxpayer money,” he said.

Any money the department is making on fighting forest fires, such as $280,000 from last year’s Wallow Fire, is being banked.

In the last two years, Hatch has taken the department’s savings from $90,000 to $550,000.

“Every dollar we save we put in capital,” he said.

“We knew we would have to pay out on a new engine and a station in Tonto Village.”

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