Three of four people running for Hellsgate Fire Department’s board fielded questions on benefits, pay and paid time off from concerned firefighters Saturday morning.
Hellsgate firefighters haven’t gotten a substantial raise in a long time and now face a pay freeze. Fire Chief Gary Hatch last year also slashed benefits, eliminated gym membership and cut vacation time in half to help get the district back on solid financial footing. Firefighters have gotten just one 3 percent pay boost in the past five years.
Early Saturday morning, board candidates Gary Norem, Garah Monnich and Larry Cory listened to concerns from a handful of firefighters who work for the department.
Candidate Fred Horton did not attend the meeting.
Captain Cris Lecher asked how the candidates felt about pay and benefits.
Cory, the only incumbent running, said he understood that firefighters were not happy to see their pay and benefits cut, but explained the district has been going through a rough few years financially.
Financial challenges include the loss of a contract with the Payson Fire Department, a decline in the assessed value of homes in the area and the need for improvements at both the new station in Tonto Village and the Star Valley station.
Despite all these expenses, the district expects to only get $780,000 in revenue from property taxes, a significant drop from previous years, Cory said.
Hatch said the board’s priority has been to keep the district open and everyone employed. Although he supports raises, he said the district can’t afford an increase anytime soon.
Norem said he sympathizes with to firefighters’ plight, but said the district can’t afford raises until assessed values hit bottom, which could take several more years.
The district has levied the maximum tax rate under law the last two years in an effort to stay afloat. Still, property tax revenue doesn’t even cover the cost of salaries. The district uses a combination of grants and other income to make up the difference.
“Even with the tax rate set at the maximum, the 27 percent decrease in the assessed valuation of the district taxpayer property from $32.7 million in tax year 2010 to $23.9 million will result in a significant decline in the tax revenues available to the district in fiscal year 2012/2013,” Norem said.
In addition, the district anticipates a 2 to 7 percent decrease in assessed valuations next year.
While no one is happy raising the tax rate, the candidates agreed on the necessity.
Hatch said if the board hadn’t raised the rate, he would have had to lay off personnel.
With only 11 full-timers, any reduction in staffing would have a big impact.
Already, the department has been without a battalion chief for several years.
Cory said merging with other fire districts in the area could raise revenue.
“I believe the merging of fire districts in the area has many financial and operational advantages and I would be willing to explore further merges,” he said.
Monnich and Norem said they also supported merging with other districts.
Norem said the district has to consider long-term solutions to stay financially solvent. If elected, he said he would base his decisions on how they affect the district today and how they affect residents beyond his four-year term.
Cory said this focus on long-term planning has kept the district functioning.
Four years ago, the district was expanding and the board approved a separate administration building, leased land for a new fire station in Star Valley and were making payments on 10 fire trucks and other equipment.
When revenues dropped, the board approved a plan that paid off all but one engine, closed the administration building, reduced personnel costs and “cut costs to the bone,” Cory said.
The last raise dates back to 2011, a 3 percent bump — the first increase in three years. Money the federal government paid the department for help fighting the Wallow Fire funded the increase.
Monnich said she was all for supporting firefighters and maintaining staffing levels, but said the budget has been limiting. She said she wants to limit tax increases, but didn’t provide details on how the district could do this.
The district did recently get a big Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) federal grant that will enable the district to keep its engineers and hire a new battalion chief. However, the extra money runs out after two years.
After that, Norem wondered how the district will maintain staffing levels.
In addition, Proposition 117 could pass and so limit property tax increases to 5 percent. “That will create big financial challenges for the Hellsgate Fire District Board over the next four years,” he said.
Other issues the district will face include Hatch’s and a captain’s retirement and the cost of a new station in Tonto Village, Cory said.
“Smart decisions will allow the district to move forward with an eye to the future,” he said.
Fortunately, the district has saved considerable money on compensation claims, without a single new claim in the past three years, Lecher pointed out.
And this comes at a time when the department does not fund gym memberships.
Lecher said he was surprised to hear community members questioned the validity of firefighters working out at the gym in Payson while on duty.
Lecher said daily workouts not only keep him in shape, they have kept him injury-free.
Many years ago, Lecher did injure his back while on duty. He said it likely would have been minimal if he had been in better shape.
Today, the department allows on-duty crews to visit Payson to work out and buy food from the grocery store.
While it costs a little bit more in gas, Hatch said it has saved the district tens of thousands in workers’ compensation claims.
Firefighters have only been called out twice while at the gym.
Each candidate said he or she wanted to serve on the board to maintain the high level of services.
“My observation from attending district board meetings during the last two years is that the Hellsgate Fire Department and district board have made a concerted effort to analyze and reduce costs without lowering service levels,” Norem said.
Monnich said her goal is to preserve the integrity of the department and ensure “the department provides the highest level of professional service that this community deserves and has become accustomed to.”
Cory said he wants to serve another four years to help the department through this period of significant change.
“I am firmly committed to maintaining the excellent services Hellsgate Fire District currently provides, while keeping the costs as low as possible to the community,” he said.