Fire district budget workshop poorly attended

by Richard Uhlhorn

 Workshop Summary:

 Following is a short summary of the main points brought up at the recent Chelan 7 Budget Workshop.

  • Chelan County Fire District No. 7 (Chelan7.com) is dedicated to becoming more transparent with the community and wants to hear any concerns or issues the community has.
  • Chelan 7 is financially in good shape for the next two years, but will have to look at the possibility of going to the public for a Levy Lid Lift in 2022. The Commissioners (Russ Jones and Phil Moller) both said the District will not seek the maximum amount allowed by law, but only ask the public to approve just the amount the District needs in 2022.
  • The District will lose its $227,000 SAFER Grant in 2022 leaving the department with some serious staffing and personnel issues if the public decides to not to approve a Levy Lid Lift.
  • Assistant Fire Chief Brandon Asher needs more individuals to commit to the reserve firefighter (volunteer) program.

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It was a disappointing turnout for the Chelan County Fire District 7 (Chelan 7) budget workshop on Wednesday, October 30, at 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. However, Fire Chief Mark Donnell outlined and went over the changes on the 2020 budget for the commissioners and others attending the meeting.

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The Chelan 7 Budget Workshop held on Wednesday October 30 was poorly attended by the community even thought Fire Chief Mark Donnell sent out invitations to a number of individuals who had shown concerns

The Draft Budget Proposal for 2020 is based on estimated revenues for 2020 and current expenditure from the 2019 budget. The estimated 2020 budget of $2,069,493.64 is based on the Commissioners approval to exercise th 1% increase over the 2019 budgeted tax revenues.

Both Karyl Oules and Bill Bassett were in attendance at the meeting.

There has been a lot of on-going Social Media discussion, some negative, about the District’s plan to push for a bid Levy Lid Lift which according to Donnell and the commissioners is not true.

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Both Assistant chief Brandon Asher and Fire Chief Mark Donnell help guide the Commissioners and others in attendance with the District’s 2020 Draft Budget and beyond. See Draft Budget below.

The District is not looking for additional funding until 2022 when the SAFER Grant disappears. The loss of that funding is a loss of $227,129.00 per year. “The reason I look at 2022 is that $227,000 will be gone,” said Donnell. “that will drop the administration to one chief, one admistrative manager and one administrative assistant.”

At risk is the position currrently held by Assistant Chief Brandon Asher who is charged with recruitment, training and retention of both volunteer and career firefighters at Chelan, Entiat and Douglas County.

Commission Chair Russ Jones remarked that the District’s lack of transparency continually comes up. “It costs us $116,000 per year for a career firefighter,” said Jones. “I think that is transparent.”

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Commission Chairman Russ Jones

The seven career firefighters will cost the District $714,849 in 2020 or 33% of the budget. That cost will rise to $752,764 and $775,347 in 2021 and 2022 respectively. Administrative costs are pegged at $337,333 in 2020 and increases to $347,450 and $357,874 in 2021 and 2022 respectively.

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The DRAFT 2020 Budget for the community’s information.

“We are interested in what the community has to say,” said Donnell. “I look forward to hearing from them.” Donnell and Asher both have open doors and if anyone in the community has an issue, they are more than happy to sit down and address them.

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Fire Chief Mark Donnell

With respect to the 53 volunteers currently listed, Chief Donnell said, “They are not really volunteers. They are compensated and I prefer to call them Reserve firefighters.”

Each reserve firefighter is required to serve 50 hours of drill time per year. The biggest problem the District has is getting them all to show up on a regular basis. “I’ve changed the training because it was not working,” said Assistant Chief Brandon Asher. Asher wants to bring all the reserve (volunteer) firefighters up to speed. “I’m giving them a three month grace period to bring them up to speed.”

“We are having an extremely hard time finding people who will get engaged,” said Asher. It is a nation wide problem. Employers not wanting to let people respond to an emergency, and a whole bunch of factors including a lack of commitment.

The District has 53 reserve (volunteers) of which 30 have been recruited in the last two years. fourteen of them have left leaving retention at 63%.

Asher stated that he has an open checkbook. “We can be more selective,” he stated. “We are really focused on getting people to commit.”

Donnell stated that one of the issues of retention is having more calls. “At the Washington Creek fire people were coming out of the woodwork.”

The District has a Stipend system for reserve firefighters who are willing to take a shift to make sure the station is covered with enough personnel. “I thought it would be competitive, but its not happening,” said Asher.

Chelan 7 is also restricted in how much they can pay a reserve firefighter. “We can’t pay more than 20% of a career firefighter,” said Donnell. After five shifts, firefighters are at that threshold. “We need to figure out how to make it more viable.”

Commission candidate Bill Bassett asked if the District has a formal strategy. “There are grants all over the place.” Donnell replied that he doesn’t what the District to survive on grants. “The pool (of reserve firefighters) who want to be career fire fighters are the ones who are pulling shifts.”

Apparatus discussion:

 Commisioner Jones asked if the Department has too many vehicles. Commissioner Moller asked if the District could get rid of any vehicles. Asher stated that if they were to get rid of any truck, they would only sell or auction the chassis off, but keeping the box.

“All our current brush rigs are in good shape with the exception of Unit 74,” said Donnell. “There are a couple of vehicles we could consider putting on surplus.

Fire District Mechanic John Goyne stated that Engines 72, 73, and 75 have Detroit diesels that haven’t been manufactured for years. “If one fails, it could take up to two and half months to find a block to build,” said Goyne. “If one of those trucks has a catastrophic failure it could take six months to one year to find an (replacement) engine

Hydrant maintenance isn’t the District’s responsibility. “We offered take over that service if they will pay us to do that,” said Donnell.

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Tax Revenue and potential Levy Lid Lift:

 Jones stated that there are a lot of misconceptions out in the community about tax revenue. “A lot of people think that we get more money when tax revenue go up,” said Jones. “We have a one percent cap.” Which means that for every $100 dollars collected, they will only be able to go up to $101 the next year.

Jones added that the District needs to start looking and planning for 2022 for a Levy Lid lift. At the end of the meeting this reporter asked if they were going to go with the stated lift of $0.25 cents per $1,000 of valuation.

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Commissioner Phil Moller

Commisioner Phil Moller said, “I don’t want to throw out a number, but we will only go out for what we need.” Jones echoed what Moller said. “We are allowed to go to $1.50 per $1,000, but none of us have considered doing that. We will only ask for what we need. People are getting hit hard with taxes anyway.”

One on-going issue is with the City of Chelan who does not pay anything to the District.

They are working with them on an Interlocal Agreement. “We are not expecting anything from those folks,” said Jones.

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