Fire department board approves $4.5 million spending plan

Vashon’s fire commissioners passed a $4.5 million spending plan last week that reflects a slight increase in revenue and includes no cuts in department services.

While other public agencies on Vashon have seen revenues decrease, Vashon Island Fire & Rescue expects to collect 2 percent more in revenue from Vashon and county-wide levies next year.

The $4.5 million budget for 2012 — up from $4.4 million this year — includes funds to give all VIFR employees raises, replace the chief’s vehicle on schedule and continues public education programs. It also designates money to repair the driveway at the main station, complete a facilities master plan, pay for a new volunteer retention program and replace the emergency radio system with a new federally mandated one.

Fire commissioners praised Chief Hank Lipe for his careful budgeting at the Nov. 29 board meeting, where Lipe gave a presentation on the budget and answered a few questions from the small handful of people in attendance before the board unanimously passed the budget.

Board member Neal Philip said he remembers when VIFR budget meetings brought crowds of unhappy Islanders to the fire station. Since his hiring in 2008, Lipe, Philip said, has gotten the department’s budget as well as overtime pay under control.

“We’ve come a long way,” Philip said.

Board members were also pleased to hear that the department will be under budget for 2011. They recently approved the purchase of a new aid car, half of which will be paid for by funds that were not spent this year.

Lipe, in an interview after the meeting, said that VIFR is in a better financial place than many fire departments across the state. Although property values have decreased in the last year, the fire department’s levy allows for a higher rate to be taxed when values drop.

“The tax rate adjusts. It will flow up on economic downturns and down on economic upturns,” he said. “So we get roughly the same amount of money.”

Prudent budgeting, he added, has allowed VIFR to fund things they hope will improve the agency’s work, such as a new phone system purchased last year and a volunteer retention program funded this year.

“We watch every dollar carefully,” Lipe said.

VIFR collects about 96 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value from Islanders. Board chair Rex Stratton noted that the state allows fire department levies to collect up to $1.50 per $1,000. He said some departments began to collect the maximum years ago, before home values dropped.

“The other fire districts are seeing a reduction in their revenues, and those at the cap are having to lay off people,” he said.

VIFR’s 2012 budget also reflects 10 percent raises that were given to four responders last year when they were promoted to captain, new positions at the fire department. Lipe said the new captains provide oversight and accountability on shifts, and he’s pleased to finally have the position at VIFR.

“We’re probably one of the few across the U.S. that didn’t have them. … It’s essential for accountability,” Lipe said.

Three firefighters promoted to captain are budgeted to receive more than $87,000 in the next year, not including overtime, while the firefighter/paramedic promoted to captain is budgeted to earn nearly $115,000.

Both Lipe and Stratton said that although the department is currently on good financial footing, the county-wide emergency med-

ical services (EMS) levy is set to expire in 2013. A task force is currently working to draft a new levy to put before voters, but VIFR faces the possibility of losing all or some of its county EMS funding, which makes up half its budget.

Though $94,000 was budgeted to equipment reserves for 2012, nothing was added to the department’s operating reserves, which Lipe said is already sufficient at about $1.4 million.

Stratton agreed, saying that if VIFR were to lose EMS funding, the reserves would hold them over until they found a solution — perhaps putting another levy before Vashon voters.

“That will be a conversation that may never have to happen, and it may happen next year,” Stratton said. “In terms of revenue to the fire department, this is a very uncertain period we’re entering.”


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