Fire District 16 was facing a $300,000 shortfall in its 2004 budget—so “tough decisions had to be made” for next year’s expenditures, commissioners said.
Continuing the current level of services was the main priority, and the district made a variety of cuts to meet the projected 2004 income. Part of the shortfall is due to the impact of Initiative 747, which limits the department’s tax increase. Over three years, the voter-approved I-747’s impact totals more than $300,000.
“It wasn’t fun telling firefighters they can’t get the gear they need,” said Commissioner Rick Stout during the public budget presentation in November.
The biggest cuts were made in the training budget and personnel—no assistant chief or new firefighters will be hired next year—as well as training. The district would need at least three more emergency-response staff to cover the growing number of calls, said Commissioner Fred Ramsdell. FD 16 has operated with the same staffing levels since 1997, while the yearly number of emergency calls since then has increased by more than 400. The increase in emergency response is either covered by paying overtime, or calling in help from the Gig Harbor, Kitsap and Mason districts during crunch times.
“It’s a bare-bones operational budget, these are basic needs,” said Chief Eric Livingood Nelsen. “We are 90 percent tax-base supported, and it’s an expensive district to run because we’re so spread out.”
Among the projected increases in 2004 are the dispatch user fees, which are based on the average number of 911 emergency calls. In 2004, the estimated cost is $89,500—based on the projected number of calls of 1,883, that’s almost $48 per 911 call. But while that seems like a high expense for a “free” call, Nelsen said it’s a very efficient countywide system and if each emergency agency were to staff its own dispatch, it would cost a lot more. And, he says, just because that’s a big expense, he doesn’t want people to be discouraged from dialing 911: It’s a cost that’s all part of helping people and saving lives.
“The biggest challenge will be maintaining our level of operations and meeting all the increases without adequate funding,” Nelsen said, adding that in essence the income in 2004 will shrink while the mandatory costs such as salaries are increasing.
The funds from the recently approved levy will not be used to offset any of the deficits, and be spent solely for purchasing new fire engines and other equipment over the next four years.