Commission Meeting, 7-9
Because we had a pretty light meeting which was 100% administrative, I don’t have a lot to summarize about the actual commission meeting. Also, because the fire department’s budget is such a complicated issue, that it has taken me four pages to begin to scratch the surface of, I have decided to skip the meeting summary for this posting. I hope that you will stick with me through the entire discussion of the fire department. I know that it is long, and it gets, in a lot of places, confusing. I’ve done the best I can, but it is without a doubt the most complicated department that we have in Newberry. I’m happy to answer any questions, and indeed, my hope is to start a City wide conversation about this. So, please, leave me your comments, thoughts, suggestions, and questions!
Fire Department: We want it, but how do we want to pay for it?
Our Fire Department is a sensitive issue for a lot of residents. We have an emotional attachment to having our own firemen. It’s great to see them riding in parades, and it makes us all feel better knowing that they are “our boys.” I share in that emotional attachment. As the Student Government Sponsor at Newberry HS, it is my responsibility to plan our annual homecoming parade. I love calling them up and getting them involved, and the students certainly love it as well. It’s nice to have a local department that will still come to your rescue when you lock your keys in your car or get your cat out of a tree for you, and it is comforting to know that, if an emergency happens, it’s going to be a neighbor, friend and possibly a relative that comes to help.
As a resident, I love having a local fire department, but as a Commissioner, it is my responsibility to make us all aware of the costs involved in having that department so that we understand where our tax money is going. That being said, I should admit to my own bias in having our own local fire department, but ultimately, it is up to you to decide how you want us to spend your money. So, I’m going to ask that we all try to set our emotions aside for a moment and calmly and rationally think about this issue.
First, we need to understand the cost.
- The City of Newberry budgets a little under $1 million a year for the fire department, but with overtime and other such costs, (for example, last year, we paid out over $118k in overtime for 12 firemen) the fire department usually actually ends up costing over $1 million. That number is rising and will continue to rise every year.
- Your fire assessment fee, right now, is $75 a year. When the Commission first started looking at creating the department, the plan was to increase the fire assessment $25 a year until the fire department reached the “personal property protection”*(definition below) point which I have been told is between $300 to $350. For political reasons, no one wants to be seen as the politician who raised rates, the City hasn’t increased the assessment fee in years, which means that our utilities department has been and is heavily subsidizing our fire department. The fire department assessment revenues are around $165,000. We also contract with the County, which brings into the fire department another $140,000. Last year’s budget for the fire department was $866,000. That’s over a half a million difference between revenues and expenditures. In this budget session, it’s been proposed to increase the fee to either $100 or $125.
- For the past two years, the fire department has requested equipment that the City can’t afford to provide. For instance, last year and this year, the department requested a new water truck. That would cost $180,000, and we just don’t have the money to buy it. Our inability to provide the fire department with the equipment that it needs weighs on me. I don’t want to let our financial problems place any of our firemen or our residents in danger.
- Firemen belong to a union, and part of that union contract is a very complicated labor structure that guarantees firemen overtime each month. The last figure I received had the fire department at over 5000 hours of overtime for the year, and there were still three months left in the fiscal year. That boiled down to, at the time, about 46 hours a month of overtime for each fireman. Right now, we have six firemen who receive over $10,000 a year in overtime pay. We have three firemen who receive over $15,000 a year in overtime pay. The problem is that hiring more firemen, which is usually the solution when it comes to overtime, wouldn’t solve the issue because you would be hiring more firemen who you then HAD to give overtime hours to.
- There is an indirect cost to our Newberry utilities costumers. Since utilities is the only profit generating business the City has access to, we have to ensure those profits stay high. I wouldn’t go so far as to ensure that our utility prices would decrease, but theoretically, they should. Now, of course, we could argue that our utilities department subsidizes all of our departments, and to an extent, that it is true. I would, however, identify two differences when it comes to subsidizing our fire department with utility profits. First, because of the union contract, we have very little control over that department’s budget. The only way we can save money in the fire department is by cutting equipment. I don’t think that is a safe or sustainable solution. I think choice here is an important distinction to make. For instance, if we choose to subsidize our parks & rec. department with our utilities profits, that’s a choice that can be made and then unmade. We don’t have a choice here. We always have and we always will have to subsidize the fire department. Second, when it comes to fire service, we have another, cheaper, option, contracting with the County which will be discussed below, that we don’t have with any other service the City provides. We can’t contract road maintenance for less than we can do it ourselves. We can’t contract water for less than we can do it ourselves. But, we can contract fire service for less than we can do it ourselves.
Let’s talk about options:
- Option one: We keep our fire department local, we make no changes in how it’s run, and we increase our fire assessment fee to the private property protection point. Again, that means that we would need an assessment fee in the range of $300 to $350.
- Option two: We keep our fire department local, we increase the assessment fee moderately, and we look at ways to drastically reduce the department’s budget.
- For instance, the County and the majority of fire departments in the State run a system in which there are two firemen at the station and two firemen on call. If there is a fire related call, all four firemen are dispatched to the fire.
- Newberry runs a system where there are four firemen at the station at all times. The benefit to our system is that there is no potential of wait time for the firemen to go into the building (By law, firemen cannot enter a building fire until there are four firemen onsite).
- Obviously, our system is better. It’s safer. But, it also costs a lot more money. And, in reality, only 3% of the calls into Newberry’s fire department are fire related, and the majority of those calls are fires that are not building fires, which means the four firemen rule doesn’t apply. Last month (at the time of this posting), our fire department had 79 calls. Only 1 of those calls was for a building fire. That means that we pay four firemen to address a concern that happens only .01% of the time. To be fair, this is the point where we run the danger of getting emotional. I’ve heard people say that, if we use the same system that 90% of the cities in the State of Florida use, we would be putting people’s lives in danger. To be honest, I think that is fear mongering. I’ve been studying this issue for over a year now, and I haven’t seen a rampage of fire deaths across the State. The County uses this system, and they have an excellent rating. The City of Alachua contracts with the County, and they’re very happy with the service they get from them. If we want to spend the money to pay two extra firemen to be at the station to respond to something that happens .01% of the time, that’s fine with me, but let’s make that decision absent any emotional appeals. Let’s do it with our eyes wide open.
- Note: This option will only be a real option when the firemen’s union contract is up for renegotiation, which isn’t for another year.
- Option three: We look at beginning to negotiate with the County to take over the fire station, and we negotiate a one-time annual fee, like we do with the Sheriff’s office for police service. The City of Newberry pays the Sheriff’s office about $450,000 a year for police protection. If fire was in that range, we would save about $450,000 a year, but we would lose control of the department. That is a real concern. Another factor to consider in this option would be the large infusion of cash that the City would receive for the sale of all of the equipment to the County.
- Option four: We do nothing and simply continue to transfer money out of our utilities to pay for the fire department. This means we have to accept that we will, most likely, need to borrow the money for facility upgrades and additions and that our water rates will continue to be on the high side. The City of Newberry has been doing well financially. We are the only city in Florida whose property values increased. We’ve seen growth and relative stability in a time when most cities are running for cover. So, this may not be a bad option. However, even if we choose to go this way, I think we need to do it with an educated understanding of the issue.
There may be both options and costs that I have missed. If so, please, don’t hesitate to let me know. I’ve tried to present this issue as objectively as I can, while being upfront about my wish to find a way to keep our fire department local, properly funded, and under Newberry’s control. I guess the decision comes down to whether or not we want to pay for it, and if we do want to pay for, how do we want to pay for it. While admitting that I want the fire department to stay the way it is, I also have to admit that I don’t think we can continue to have our cake and eat it too.
As always, leave me your comments!
*Personal property protection-legally, residents cannot be charged a fee for emergency services that involve personal health. This means that tax payers have to fund the fire department out of the ad valorem tax. So, the fire assessment fee isn’t for, and indeed it cannot, fund the entire fire department. When you pay the fire assessment fee, you are paying for protection of your personal property. To break it down, you can’t be charged a fee to have someone come and help you during a heart attack, but you can be charged a fee to have someone come and save your house and possessions. In essence, you can’t have other tax payers pay to save your property. We each have to pay for that service if we want to have access to that service. So, the fire assessment fee is based on a very complicated ratio, but for Newberry, the fire assessment fee should be, according to the last study, between $300 and $350 to reach that level of personal property protection. As long as it stays below that level, tax payers are, in reality, paying to protect other people’s property.
I don’t want to get off topic, but on a side note, this is exactly the reason that I think the fairest way to go about figuring out what the fire assessment rate should be is to base it off of sq footage of the property in question. We already do that with commercial property. The same logic should apply to residential. Why should someone with a 1200sq ft house pay the same rate for property protection as someone with a 3000sq ft house? Your insurance rate is based on the size and value of your house, your property taxes are based on the size and value of your house, why shouldn’t your fire assessment fee also be based on the size and value of your house? After all, you are paying to protect your property. If you have less property to protect than your neighbor, you should pay less to protect that property. If we did it this way, then, it is likely that fire assessment rate would stay the same for low to moderate income homes. The rate would go up only for those whose homes are worth more and need to pay more to protect those homes.
Now, someone could argue that it costs the same amount for the fire department to respond to a 1200sq ft house as it does for them to respond to a 3000sq ft house. However, that argument fundamentally misses the point of what a fire assessment fee is for. The assessment fee isn’t to pay for the fire department to go to your house. The fire department has to respond to protect you, to save your life. The assessment fee is for them to protect your property. I can’t begin to overemphasize this point because it is the entire argument for an assessment fee in the first place. If we don’t understand this point, then, we fall prey to arguments that fire assessment fees are regressive taxes. If we understand the truth of what a fire assessment fee is actually for, then, we understand that, far from being a regressive tax, it is a much fairer way to pay for fire protection.