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Fire board reduces staffing levels

Firefighters in the CKFR District listen to union leader Ronny Smith read a statement. - Leslie Kelly
Firefighters in the CKFR District listen to union leader Ronny Smith read a statement.
— image credit: Leslie Kelly

The minimum number of firefighter/paramedics on duty during each shift in the Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue will soon be reduced from 19 to 17.

That action came Tuesday at a meeting of the Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue board of commissioners, during which the matter passed on a four to one vote with commissioner Dick West voting “no.”

After more than 40 minutes of discussion, and before a packed meeting room where at least 50 union firefighters listened in, commissioner West tried to convince the others that there was time to consider the reduction and still pass a budget for 2014, without taking action Tuesday.

“We’re not at the 11th hour yet,” West said. “I think we have time to look again at all of our options.”

But Fire Chief Scott Weninger said the decision needed to be made because until it was made, the staff could not complete its work on the budget.

“This issue needs to be addressed now,” he said. “If the board says to fund at the minimum of 19 as it is now, we have to change the budget to reflect the $900,000 that will be needed for overtime and that money’s got to come from somewhere else. We’ll need to begin cutting the budget in other places.”

The discussion about minimum staffing came about because of overtime issues in the fire district. In the past few years, the district has seen overtime range from $500,000 to an estimated $900,000 for this year. At the same time, the district has lost more than $2 million in revenue because of the assessed valuation of property in the district which affects how much funding it receives from its regular and EMS levies.

Overtime is being accrued because of the minimum staffing number being at 19, the chief said. The district has 77 career firefighters on staff with the maximum staffing at 25 for each shift. With minimums at 19, the district has to call in firefighters on overtime when there are some out for training, days off or sickness.

Although the budget has been discussed for the past two board meetings, the issue of minimum staffing hasn’t come up until now. Previously, commissioners had been looking at a 2014 budget that called for $500,000 in overtime. But Chief Weninger said he wasn’t comfortable with that.

“If we do not act soon (to reduce the overtime), we will face tougher choices down the road,” Weninger said. “We will be putting our future in danger.”

The chief said reducing the minimum number of firefighter paramedics on duty from the current 19 to 17 will reduce anticipated overtime from where it is currently at more than $700,000 to about $175,000 annually. He said while doing this may mean slower response times, it will keep the district from having to eliminate positions.

Ronny Smith, president of the IAFF Local 2819, took issue with the reduction.

Although there was no public comment time during the discussion, commission chairman Dave Fergus allowed Smith to read a statement.

Smith said that reducing the minimum staffing from 19 to 17 without having a plan in place about how that would affect response time and at which firehouses the numbers would be reduced was “highly problematic and inappropriate.”

“This should be the last resort,” Smith said. “Without adequate personnel the community is at risk and so are the lives of firefighters.”

Smith referred to the district’s strategic planning document which called for the standard of having at least 19 on staff on each shift, in order to cover the district.

“Seventeen is nowhere near the national standards,” he said. “With reduced staffing we are not meeting the national standards.”

He also asked why the district had not brought up the staffing minimums earlier in the budget process.

“There has been no chance for the community to have their say,” he said. “I’m asking that the board take the time to work with us and members of the community — to collaborate and come up with a solution.”

Commissioners, however, took a vote despite those in the audience asking to speak.

Chairman Fergus said there was no public comment time scheduled, but he did allow several people to speak at the end of the meeting under “good of the order” after the vote had been taken.

Rumbles in the audience included, “So now we get to have our say … after you voted.”

Citizen Jonathan Thomas said he was very concerned.

“You’re talking about a reduction, but we don’t really know what that means,” he said. “Will you be closing a station? You didn’t take the details into consideration.

“And the fact that you didn’t even let the public comment before you made the decision, I’m just embarrassed for you.”

Smith added, “You just made a terrible mistake. We have to provide a service to our community and yet the community didn’t get their say. I appreciate your service, but you can do better.”

During the meeting, the board also passed several resolutions approving the 2014 budget. The $16 million budget includes $13.3 million in tax revenue from both the EMS levy and the district’s regular operation levy. The budget is based on other income as well, including $1.9 million in excise tax, state contributions, contracts for services and ambulance billing collections, which is the bulk of that at $1.3 million.

On the expense side, $13 million of the planned $16 million in expenses are related to personnel. Salaries are listed at $7.1 million, plus another $2.5 million in benefits. Costs of operations, including utilities, uniforms, janitorial services, printing and publications, professional memberships and election costs are listed at $1.19 million. Capital expenses are set at $421,113. That amount includes equipment purchases, computer purchases, tires, ladders, nozzles, and medical supplies.

 

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