The Hellsgate Fire Department topped a bad month with news that it didn’t get a crucial federal grant and will lose its chief.
The month has brought one disaster after another for the property-tax-dependent, volunteer-reliant fire district that protects Star Valley, Tonto Village and many other small communities.
First a beloved firefighter died during a fitness test, then a board member died of brain cancer and just this week the department discovered it did not receive a federal grant, creating a $366,000 sinkhole in the budget.
On Tuesday, the fire board and Chief Gary Hatch agreed he would leave, a year before he planned to retire.
“It has been a rough one,” Hatch said.
On Tuesday, the department held two flag ceremonies, one for Lt. Bobby Mollere, who died while taking a pack test on the high school track, the other for Larry Cory, a former board member who died on the day of Mollere’s funeral in Phoenix.
“It was a very emotional day,” he said.
After paying tribute to the men, the board met to decide what to do about the loss of the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant.
In 2012, the district received $607,000 through the program, which it used to keep four of its engineers to drive the fire trucks and hire David Bathke as battalion chief.
The department had waited anxiously for months for news on the grant, only to discover the federal money will go elsewhere. Hatch said it appeared, in Arizona, only larger fire departments received grant money.
Payson also got an $800,000 SAFER grant, which it used to hire six firefighters. Payson didn’t apply for another grant and so will absorb that payroll cost in the upcoming budget year. That is something Payson Town Manager Debra Galbraith said the town always planned to do.
Loss of the grant has spurred a crisis for Hellsgate.
Instead of laying off one or two firefighters, Hatch agreed to step down. Hatch’s last day will be May 22, but he has 12 weeks of paid time off and a six-month severance package under his contract — so he’ll still be drawing pay until Feb. 17 of next year.
Hatch says he was eligible to take another 400 hours, but refused it.
In all, the district will save about $100,000 without Hatch. It plans to make up the $200,000 difference using money earned from fighting wildland fires and cashing in on its reserves.
The department has also elected not to replace a full-time engineer at Station 22, in Tonto Village, who got a job at another department.
“This is what we needed to do to make it work and keep the department operational,” Hatch said. “It is bittersweet (leaving early), I but saw it coming.”
What Hatch saw coming for years is a series of budget shortfalls.
The district went from collecting $1.1 million in property tax to $700,000 in four years. The department also lost a $160,000 contract with the Payson Fire Department when Payson decided to build its own third fire station and staff it with money from its own federal grant.
The huge decrease in property tax revenues stems from falling property values.
As the district’s revenues dropped, the board took advantage of a one-time chance to raise its property tax rate above the maximum to $367 per $100,000 to help make up for assessed value losses, Hatch explained. Next year, however, the rate will drop down to $325 per $100,000. As a result, the district’s revenues will fall from $830,000 to $704,000.
If the state Legislature does not raise the maximum allowed assessed value rate next year, the department will have to start laying off firefighters. The district already relies heavily on trained and certified volunteers that get paid an hourly rate when they’re on a fire or rescue call.
The loss of the SAFER grant spurred fear among the staff, Hatch said.
“Everyone was scared,” he said. “I met with all the full-time staff right away and went through the ramifications.”
Hatch’s decision to leave so everyone would keep their jobs provoked a mixture of relief and sorrow.
“I knew if we didn’t get the SAFER grant I would leave. I am not going to lay off two people on a fire truck so I can keep my job,” he said. “I will have been here for 32 years May 6 and everything I have ever done has been for this community.”
In his place, Bathke will act as interim fire chief until Feb. 17 when he will take over officially as chief.
Hellsgate has to wait another year before it can apply for the SAFER grant again. This go-around, there were more than $1.67 million in requests.