A looming budget crisis has cost Payson its top firefighter and possibly its fire marshal.
Payson Fire Chief Marty deMasi this week announced he will retire early, in part due to worsening budget problems in the department and town.
In addition, the possible elimination of Payson Fire Marshal Robert Lockhart’s position has spurred controversy.
deMasi said June 11 will likely be his last day on the job, although he has several months of accrued personal time.
In Star Valley, Hellsgate Fire Chief Gary Hatch said he might also leave before his planned 2015 retirement due to a massive deficit, but he will likely stay on at least another year.
For deMasi, leaving a department he has been with 35 years is filled with mixed emotions.He says he is sad, but feels it is the right time to go.
The move comes a week after the Payson Town Council discussed eliminating key positions during a special budget meeting that could help inflate the town’s dismal reserve fund.
Mayor Kenny Evans suggested town staff look at the feasibility of eliminating Fire Marshal Bob Lockhart’s job and other positions, although he failed to mention any other positions. Doing so could bolster the $480,000 rainy day fund. The town wanted a $1.2 million, 5 percent reserve. The $480,000 would cover town operations for about three weeks.
Last night, the council again directed staff to take a closer look at eliminating the fire marshall position and using a contractor to do fire inspections.
Evans said with the economy not recovering as quickly as he hoped, the town must do away with high cost positions.
deMasi would not say if he was retiring early to help save Lockhart’s job.
Also at the recent budget meeting, the council announced the fire department would do away with reserve firefighters because of new health care requirements under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare.” The federal reforms require businesses to offer standard benefits — including health care — to employees working more than 24 hours a week.
There are 10 reserve firefighters currently.
Several firefighters and residents expressed concern after the recent announcements.
Firefighter A.R. Hill said after watching the recent budget meeting he was “alarmed and ashamed of the toxic leadership environment in the Town of Payson administration.”
Hill said he believes Evans has an ulterior motive for removing Lockhart.
“Payson’s mayor and council have other options available if they really want to save money and build the reserve fund, such as eliminating merit raises again, not hiring the proposed new positions, and eliminating the superfluous deputy town manager position,” he wrote.
Stacey Lawrence said riffing Lockhart would be detrimental to the department, the town and residents’ safety.
“Your fire marshal is probably the most knowledgeable, educated in all compliances of everyone in the fire department,” she wrote. “What he does is constantly keep the citizens of this town and the fire department safe from dangerous situations.”
Some have suggested officials want to remove Lockhart because of his tough code enforcement, which has reportedly made it difficult for new businesses to open and forced others to close.
“I understand that some owners and businesses may not like what he says (or) needs to be done, but he does make sure that any extended danger keeps from happening,” Lawrence wrote. “Pointing a finger Mr. Mayor to one employee in your meeting to (be) cut is extremely unprofessional and uncalled for.”
“We all want more jobs, industry, and a university, but I submit that such growth must happen in a manner that doesn’t compromise the safety of our citizens and firefighters,” Hill said.
It is unclear if eliminating Lockhart’s position would save the town money.
Under requirements of the SAFER grant, which Payson and Hellsgate each secured last year to hire new firefighters, grantees cannot lay off any firefighters during the grant period. If they do, they risk defaulting. However, Councilor Michael Hughes said federal officials have assured them the fire marshall position is not a front-line firefighting job and the elimination of it would not impact the grant.
The town has not yet determined who will take over as chief once deMasi leaves. “We are discussing who would take my position,” he said. “There are a lot of different possibilities.”
A battalion chief or even Lockhart could take on the role.
In Star Valley, Battalion Chief David Bathke will become chief when Hatch leaves.
Hatch is planning to retire in 2015 after more than 31 years with the fire department.
Recently, however, he discussed leaving sooner to help the cash-strapped department save money.
Hatch estimates a $380,000 deficit in the 2014-2015 budget thanks to sharp increases in fuel costs, insurance, medical and workman’s compensation.
If the department cannot secure another SAFER grant, Hatch said he would leave in August 2014. “I would rather step down than lose people,” he said.
With the economic situation grim, Hellsgate may even stop services in some communities in the next four years, he said.
"When I said that we might have to end some services in the communities, I was referring to things like: the Fuels reduction grant we have which takes a lot of manpower to manage; the free firewise inspections that we provide which is again a manpower issue; the free blood pressure checks we do in some of the communities on days when they ask us to, these are manned by our personnel free of charge to the areas that ask for it; we have already shut down the free brush hauling that we did due to cost savings we had done; smoke detector installations and battery changes that we do might have to be ended," he wrote. "These are just a few of the free services that we provide that might have to be suspended. We will always provide fire and EMS services as long as our doors are open. Now how long that will be is the big question."
“The future is very bleak,” he added.
For deMasi, he is looking forward to life after the fire department. “I will get to move onto the next phase,” he said. “I’ll probably take the first couple of months to ponder life and enjoy not having to come in.”
deMasi has no plans to move since his wife still teaches elementary school.
“I am not going anywhere and I still want to contribute to the community welfare,” he said. “Everyone has to make a decision to move on and that is basically what I have done.”
deMasi had planned to retire in 1.5 years.
Editor's note: This story includes updated comments from Hatch regarding what services could be cut.