East Pierce Fire & Rescue is planning for “drastic cuts” in the 2015 budget after a fire levy failed to earn supermajority support in the November election.
Layoffs aren’t out of the question as negotiations with the firefighters union continue.
Fire commissioners approved a $23.7 million budget at a special meeting Wednesday night, despite the ongoing negotiations, in order to meet Friday’s deadline to submit it to Pierce County.
East Pierce Fire Chief Jerry Thorson said that number will likely be amended to about $22 million once negotiations wrap up. He said the goal is to avoid layoffs despite a $3.2 million shortfall. But union negotiations will have a direct effect on whether the fire district cuts jobs.
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“We were up against such a time crunch,” Thorson said Thursday. “We hope to get (negotiations) done within the next couple weeks.”
East Pierce Fire serves more than 88,000 residents in and around Bonney Lake, Sumner, Edgewood, Milton, South Prairie and Lake Tapps. It has six staffed fire stations and five volunteer stations.
Mike Westland, president of East Pierce Firefighters Union IAFF Local 3520, said the union is primarily concerned about proposed cuts that could close stations. He said that would compromise the safety of citizens and firefighters.
“We’re trying to find ways to save money without (closing stations down),” Westland said Thursday.
Cuts that have already been planned include reductions in overtime and daily staffing, elimination of special-event staffing, deferred purchase of equipment, a freeze on filling vacant firefighter positions and suspension of volunteer recruitment, and reduced maintenance of stations, fire engines and medic units.
Thorson said the cuts will translate to longer response times and depletion of reserves to replace essential equipment that must be purchased next year. School programs and CPR classes have also been eliminated, he added, and funding for staff training has been significantly reduced.
“We’re really trying to focus on the firefighting,” Thorson said.
Still, Thorson said firefighting services will suffer. Minimum daily staffing is 23 firefighters, but the cuts will likely reduce that number to 21 firefighters on duty, he said.
Assistant Chief Ed Goodlet said in a news release that reduced staffing will lead to “rolling brownouts” at stations, where engines or medic units — and even entire stations — could be closed for a day at a time.
“These will definitely have an effect on our entire response plan,” Goodlet said in the release.
Prioritizing emergency response in light of the cuts also means administrative positions will take a hit, Thorson said. Some full-time positions will likely shift to part time, he said, but layoffs are still possible given uncertainty with union negotiations.
Westland, the union president, said firefighters contracts that expire at the end of 2015 are being scrutinized for possible cost savings. But he doesn’t anticipate the final agreement will result in lost jobs.
“I doubt there will be layoffs,” he said. “We’re already extremely short staffed. Layoffs will be really tough to make work.”
Proposition 1 — which earned 56 percent of the votes, short of the 60 percent required for passage — would have authorized the fire district to collect $3.2 million to $3.5 million annually at a rate of $0.35 to $0.37 per $1,000 of assessed property value for a four-year period through 2018.
East Pierce Fire’s last property tax increase in 2012 generated about $6.2 million over 2013 and 2014.
The East Pierce levy was the only fire measure to garner official opposition in the Pierce County Voters’ Pamphlet. The annual amount sought represented about 15 percent of the fire district’s operating budget.
The reductions in the budget come as calls for service have increased about 18 percent in the past two years.
Moving forward, Thorson said the fire district will reach out to the public and brainstorm long-term solutions to the financial problems. That could include putting another levy up for a vote.
For now, he said the fire district will operate within its means.
“Despite these cuts, and despite our financial challenges, our firefighters and support staff are dedicated to providing the best service possible,” Thorson said. “We just have to make sure we live within our budget.”