Graham Fire announces service cuts following failed levy

Graham Fire & Rescue announced cuts in service Tuesday, the latest in a string of financial problems in the fire district that serves 61,000 residents in East Pierce County.

Graham Fire Chief Ryan Baskett said the “forced” cuts won’t result in layoffs, but response times will likely rise and some fire stations will have to close either permanently or part time.

“We’ll continue to do the best we can; however we’re not going to be able to respond as quickly,” Baskett told The News Tribune.

The board of commissioners voted on the staff reductions last week. Baskett said the cuts were inevitable after an $11 million levy failed in the primary election last month; the measure was supported by 58 percent of voters, falling two percentage points short of the supermajority needed for passage.

Baskett said the measure will be on the general election ballot in November, but he must plan to balance the 2015 budget with the immediate resources available.

The fire district is reducing daily staffing from 11 responders to nine, as well as reducing the number of daily paramedic units from three to two. It will also close Fire Station 96 (Thrift), which was infrequently staffed, and institute part-time closures of Station 95 (Frederickson) and Station 93 (Benston). Non-priority calls will have to wait for an available unit to respond.

Other changes include providing single-unit response for all basic life support calls, eliminating support for school and public events that impact daily staffing, and eliminating responses to burn complaints and non-hazardous calls.

Graham Fire has struggled since its revenue peaked in 2008. The recession led to decreased property values and an annual budget reduction of about $2.5 million, Baskett said.

“We had six more people on the street than we do today, and we had a lot more resources and money,” he said. “We’ve been continually dropping year after year.”

Though tax revenue has declined by 20 percent in the past six years, calls for service have increased by more than 14 percent. The fire district is expected to respond to 6,000 calls this year.

Baskett said he’s avoided layoffs by sparing costs any way possible, including leaving vacant positions unfilled, making cuts to training and reorganizing department administration.

Last summer, the district’s 65 employees took a 5 percent compensation cut to save nine people from layoffs. Those changes were made after the fire district negotiated buyout packages for three employees that totaled more than $592,000.

A state audit report found that the district overpaid by more than $150,000 for the buyouts given to three administrators, including the former chief. The audit also stated that the agreements were negotiated behind closed doors

Baskett has said that the buyouts were “an effort to balance the budget” and entice longtime employees to retire. They will save more than $500,000 a year, he said in a June 5 News Tribune report.

In light of the most recent cuts, Baskett said residents must prepare for increased response times. He added that the district will do its best to provide the best emergency services.

“These are forced cuts,” he said. “We’re doing what we need to do.”