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Fire chief 'very concerned' about 2014 budget

Despite bright spots in the city’s economic forecast and budget, there is one department in Renton that is facing the potential of a budget crunch next year.

According to Fire Chief Mark Peterson, his department could be looking at a gap of approximately $500,000 in the 2014 ledger.

“I’m very concerned,” Peterson said this week.

Peterson said his department is facing the funding shortage primarily because more than 10 percent of his 155-person department is injured or on light duty, meaning other firefighters and emergency personnel are being paid overtime to “backfill” those shifts.

“We try not to shut down equipment,” Peterson said.

According to Peterson, the Renton Fire Department is slowly but surely getting older and “key parts” such as shoulders, knees, hips and especially backs can get hurt just doing the job.

Peterson refers to police and firefighters as “occupational athletes” because of the amount of physical activity required on the job, which can be taxing. He said 78 percent of the calls to which the department responds are not fire, but emergency calls and many of those can involve the lifting of patients who do not necessarily fall in places that are easily accessible or allow proper lifting technique. Because of that, injuries can occur.

Peterson also cites a change to firefighter pension plans that occurred in the late 70s. Under those rules, health insurance becomes the responsibility of the firefighter after he or she retires, which Peterson said has added to people staying on the job longer.

On top of that, the 2008 recession hit the department relatively hard as well, lowering assessed valuation and hindering building and development in the city right at a time when the Benson Hill annexation added thousands to city’s population, increasing the call load at the fire department.

“We weren’t getting the tax collections we were used to,” Peterson said.

Adding to the department’s “perfect storm” of funding problems was the initiative limiting revenue collection increase to 1 percent, no matter what cost increases might be, in this case 2 or 3 percent each year, according to Peterson.

All of that has led to the potential $500,000 gap in Peterson’s $24 million budget.

Peterson said part of the problem is that about 85 percent of the budget is locked up in salaries and benefits and cannot be used to help make up the difference.

“We don’t really have that much wiggle room in our budget,” he said.

Peterson began talking about the upcoming budget issues this fall during Public Safety Committee meetings and said he is “very concerned” that levels of service may need to be altered.

“We can only provide the level of service for the funding we have,” he said. “We have to figure out what our funding mechanism is going to be.”

Peterson said the City Council will set policy on the levels of service; he is simply bringing the issue to its attention.

“We’ll staff according to those levels (set by the council),” he said.

Councilman Don Persson, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said he appreciates the fire chief bringing the budget concerns to their attention, but said because of the city’s finance staff, he did not share the chief’s concern.

“I don’t see any reason to panic,” he said.

Mayor Denis Law agreed, saying that he thinks the chief is painting a “worst-case scenario” and said the city had a similar fear last year but was able to manage.

“If you have that kind of problem that comes up, you have to find a way to deal with it,” Law said, adding that he is hopeful the trend of having to use overtime to cover for injured firefighters comes to a quick end.

Persson said he is taking a “wait-and- see” attitude with the budget to gauge exactly how large any potential gap might be before making any decision but did appreciate the chief’s bringing funding and staffing concerns to the council.

“If we need those people there, we’ll have to find a way to fund it,” Persson said. “We’re not going to let (the department) suffer.”

Persson also credited the administration and the city’s finance department with not only providing the council with accurate budget information but also helping successfully navigate the city through the recession with fairly firm footing, managing the budget as needed.

“We’ll continue to manage that,” he said, adding that he had faith in the city’s ability to stay on track.

“Once we find out what the hole is, then we can deal with it,” he said. “We’ll respond and take care of the problem.”

Law also said the city monitors the budget every month  and keeps the council informed “so there’s no surprises,” but reiterated that it was not something he was too worried about given the city’s firm financial footing at this point.

“It’s not something we’re panicked about,” he said, adding that if there does turn out to be a gap, then discussions will begin on changes to service or using reserve funds to make up the difference.

Peterson said a federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant takes effect Nov. 15 and will fully fund six positions for two years, but after that, the federal money dries up and the department will be forced to find a way to cover those salaries as well.

Peterson said he expects several retirements in the next few years though and hopes that by removing some of the longest-serving and highest-paid members of the department from the payroll will also help ease the crunch, as newer members often reduce costs to a department.

But until then, Peterson said he was just hoping to bring the matter to council attention so they were not surprised come budget time.

“There’s no easy solutions, but we’re working on ‘how do we go into the future?’” Peterson said.

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