Town Targets Fire Marshal

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Payson has 54 employees whose salaries and retirement benefits tally more than $75,000 — but the only one it can spare is the fire marshal, according to a budget study committee that reported its findings to the council last week.

Therefore, the committee recommended the town use outside contractors to do fire inspections, lay off Fire Marshal Robert Lockhart, and use the $92,000 it spends on his salary and benefits to bolster the reserves for the budget that the council will adopt next month.

The long list of high-paid town workers didn’t include the cost of medical benefits, said Councilor Michael Hughes. Of the 54 positions costing more than $75,000, 42 are in the police and fire departments. The others include top town managers.

Hughes said laying off the fire marshal would increase the town’s $480,000 projected reserve fund by $92,000. That still won’t come close to the 5 percent standard, which would require reserves of $1.3 million.

The council is struggling with another year of nearly flat tax revenues, but wants to adopt a 3 percent pay raise, increase the number of police officers and fill some other positions. The adopted 2013-14 police department budget would increase by an estimated 20 percent over projected year-end spending in the current budget year. The fire department budget would increase 17 percent.

Hughes said the budget committee concluded the town couldn’t cut front-line certified firefighters without losing a federal grant it used to hire six firefighters to staff the new station. Most of the other high-paid jobs were required by state statute, he said. That left only the fire marshal’s job to cut.

The recommendation prompted a sometimes-tense discussion, much of it centered on claims the council wanted to get rid of Lockhart because he has supposedly proven inflexible and sometimes obstructionist in applying the voluminous town fire code to new businesses. Town hall insiders have, in the past, said that requirements Lockhart imposed — or attempted to impose — significantly delayed approval of an ammunition manufacturing firm, PetSmart, Big Lots and other businesses.

Councilor Fred Carpenter asked, “Don’t we have to have a fire marshal?”

Town Manager Deb Galbraith replied “Someone has to do the duties” but that several certified fire marshals already living in town that did fire inspections on contract elsewhere could do the same thing in Payson.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans took the microphone to say, “There have been rampant rumors” that he and Lockhart had “clashed over many issues and this was a retaliatory way of getting back at him.” Evans then directly addressed Lockhart, sitting somberly in the audience. “Have we ever been in a meeting where we had a clash?” he asked.

“No, sir,” said Lockhart.

“We had one or two meetings” about the ammunition manufacturing firm. But none of those issues have come up between you and I, have they?”

“No, sir,” said Lockhart.

“There’s a rumor we’re trying to dismantle the fire department,” said Evans. “That’s not true. One council member here said he didn’t know anything about this before it came up in the meeting,” continued Evans in reference to statements made by Carpenter in an appearance on the radio. “But that’s the point of the Open Meeting Law. To suggest that somehow we sit in the back room and conspire about what we’re going to do, that’s just hogwash. We bring every idea that we can to the surface. It’s a long process. The fact that we’ve had discussions doesn’t mean that’s what we’re going to do.”

He said after one of the longest downturns in modern history, the town must make painful cuts. “In the past five months, we’ve had three or four new homes built. Before the downturn, we were building five homes a week.”

Evans then took the unusual step of turning the gavel over to Vice Mayor Hughes so he could make a motion to direct the town manager to report back at the June 4 meeting on the impact of eliminating the fire marshal position and relying on outside contractors to do the necessary fire inspections of new construction.

Only Carpenter voted against the motion.

“I think it’s very ill-advised for us to do that. The big (building) upturn is just around the corner,” which means the town would then need a fire marshal to do inspections of new buildings.

photo

Bob Lockhart

Comments

Jack Babb 11 months ago

The fire department, as with any of the other town departments, is an essential and integral part of any municipality. All departments must measure their productivity; water department delivers water, police department patrols the town and, when necessary, makes arrests and enforces the state laws and town ordinances, and then there is the fire department. Firefighters measure their productivity by how well they stop the forward progress of a fire, but what of the Fire Marshal. The Fire Marshal's productivity should be measured by how many fires he/she prevents on a daily basis, almost incalculable. This position is also a link, or even a liaison, between the fire department and other town departments and community groups. Payson has an adopted fire code, it should be the Payson Fire Department to enforce that code. I was the first Fire Marshal for the Town of Payson and am satisfied, at that time, that I had the support of both the town and the firefighters. To contract out will, unintentionally, keep the firefighters in the dark about some of the specific hazards they might encounter during an emergency, whether fire or medical. There were some in the town that did not agree with the enforcement of the fire code but the job, while thankless at many times, is satisfying in knowing safety for the firefighters and the community was and is the first priority. I would urge Mayor Evans and the town council to review other options and maintain the position of Fire Marshal. - Respectfully, Jack E. Babb

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Pat Randall 11 months ago

Maybe Debra would like to give the names to the newspaper of the fire marshalls living here so thier certifications, education and experience could be checked out.

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Barbara Rasmussen 11 months ago

It truly makes no sense to get rid of a Fire Marshal that is extremely qualified and does an excellent job and then hire outside consultants to do his job. I can not help but wonder who these people are that are living in the area, what their qualifications are, what type of training they have and most importantly how much are they going to cost. Pat you are correct in saying that the Fire Marshal position is not a part-time job.

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H. Wm. Rhea III 11 months ago

My comment isn't about the fire marshall story as much as something that is quoted at the end of the article.
“I think it’s very ill-advised for us to do that. The big (building) upturn is just around the corner,” which means the town would then need a fire marshal to do inspections of new buildings."
Why did the Payson School Board just sell a school if there is going to be a "Big Uptick" in building soon? They said that there wasn't growth but now a city councilman says there is.
What's up with that? Is Payson going to grow or not?

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Ted Paulk 11 months ago

I was more sturck by the first sentence, "Payson has 54 employees whose salaries and retirement benefits tally more than $75,000." Per capita income in Payson is $19,513; for the state of Arizona the per capita income is $20,275...less than one-third of these 54 town employees.

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Kim Chittick 11 months ago

I am appalled that Mayor Evans would actually carry on a virtual interrogation with Fire Marshall Lockhart in the middle of a council meeting; putting him on the spot publicly the way that he did. Of course Mr. Lockhart would agree with Mr. Evans' assessment. His job is on the line, for crying out loud! Can you imagine the chaos that would have erupted and the consequences that would have come about if Mr. Lockhart had said, "Well, Mr, Mayor, we have clashed and disagreed, and I do believe that your actions are retaliatory"?

I have interacted with Fire Marshall Lockhart in a professional capacity, and he does not seem to me to be a vindictive or vengeful person. I do not believe that he is overly zealous in carrying out his duties. It is his job to enforce town codes, and do his level best to keep the public safe.

I have several concerns with the town using contracted "Fire Marshalls". First and foremost, when using more than one person to enforce regulations, how is consistency maintained? Now, as I have no idea the identity of any of the suggested contracted Fire Marshall's, and therefore, am not speaking up for, nor impugning their integrity, I question the protocol if one of the contractors is "easier" then the others. Would they be required to disclose any conflict of interest they may have when being contracted for a job? After all, this is a small town and many are connected in one way or another. Whose job would it be to oversee the Contracted Fire Marshalls and confirm their work and findings? I am also concerned about liability. Say a contracted Fire Marshall signs off on a business being opened, and 2 weeks later, the building goes up in flames as a result of faulty wiring that the Contracted Fire Marshall missed. Is the Contracted Fire Marshal liable? Is the town?

I have extensive experience with contract employees, and first hand knowledge of the chaos that can erupt when they are not consistent. Why, I even remember a time when one of our town's very own building Inspector's was typically requested, or inspections were arranged so as to occur at a time when the favorite "easy" Inspector was working. It is my opinion that contract employees are much more susceptible, vulnerable, and easily manipulated, by way of bribery, "under the table suggestions", and confusion. I am in no way stating that anybody is more or less guilty of said actions, merely that by having one person perform the job of Fire Marshall, consistency is maintained all around, and the likelihood of favoritism, or over stringent inspections is reduced.

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