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New fire chief offers up his first budget

Though he’s been on the job only three months, Vashon Fire Chief Hank Lipe has put forward a budget with a handful of small but significant changes that he hopes will begin to reshape a district he says is “out of balance.”

He’s added a new line item — volunteer recruitment and retention — with a suggested budget of $26,000 in an effort to beef up a volunteer program that he says is all but defunct. He’s eliminated two administrative positions at a savings of $150,000 to make the department less top-heavy and to enable him to focus on the more pressing need to get people “on the streets.”

He’s close to finalizing a contract with a Vashon CPA who will handle the department’s accounting and provide independent financial oversight. And he’s scoured the budget in search of places to save the district money, such as scrapping a $3,600 paging system it wasn’t using.

As a result, when Vashon Island Fire & Rescue’s five commissioners hold a public hearing on Lipe’s first budget tomorrow night, they’ll have before them a $4.14 million budget that not only reflects the new fire chief’s priorities, but also a 4 percent decrease over last year’s budget. What’s more, the budget includes a $250,000 infusion in the fire district’s rainy-day fund, a contribution the district wasn’t able to make last year.

“I feel good about it,” Lipe said of his first budget. “We were able to throw some money in the bank. We were able to trim some costs where they needed to be trimmed.”

And with a new emphasis on volunteer recruitment and training, he said, he hopes the budget will enable him to determine if a fire department bolstered by volunteers is really viable on Vashon anymore. He calls it an “expeditionary” effort — an attempt to find out if volunteers are “an untapped resource” or a nonexistent one.

“I don’t know if there is or isn’t that resource, but I’m willing to find out,” he said.

In August, Lipe took over the reins of a department that has been buffeted over the years by controversy and criticism; the last chief — Keith Yamane — left within a year of his tenure.

But it seems it’s taken Lipe little time to assess the issues and begin to map a course that he hopes could get the small district headed in the right direction.

In a wide-ranging interview in his office recently, he said he was particularly concerned by the number of administrative people the district employs compared with the scarcity of firefighters on the streets.

Currently, the district has three outlying fire stations — Dockton, Tahlequah and Heights — that have a variety of trucks and aid cars but not the right number of volunteers to use the equipment.

Behind him was a white board with the various fire stations and their needs scribbled beneath — with the number 62 circled at the bottom. “That’s the number of people we’re short,” he said.

“The whole system’s out of balance,” he added. “We have a bunch of volunteers, but they’re all off-Island. ... This is about the lumpiest tire I’ve ever seen.”

The $26,000 line item for volunteer recruitment and retention, he said, will be used to undertake some advertising and marketing efforts and other programs that he hopes will beef up volunteerism.

“I know there are successful models out there, and it costs money to do them,” he said.

But Lipe and others acknowledge that all the recruitment efforts in the world may not be able to make up for shifting demographics that have hurt departments that depend on volunteers across the country.

It’s particularly difficult on Vashon, with few industries left on the Island and a professional work force that largely commutes off-Island.

“We’ve been trying for a long time ... to attract and keep good volunteers, and it’s not been successful,” said Neal Philip, a commissioner.

Still, he said, he’s encouraged by Lipe’s determination to address the problem head-on.

“He’s really aware of the issues. He’s talking to a lot of people and knows the challenges he’ll be facing,” Philip said.

Steve Palmer, a firefighter/paramedic who heads the IAFF Local 4189, the Vashon firefighters’ union, sounded a more dubious note and questioned whether the amount of money slated for training and recruitment — all told, more than $100,000 — makes sense.

“I don’t think throwing money at the volunteer program is going to bring in more volunteers,” he said.

But Lipe said “throwing money” at a problem is not how he works. “That’s why the budget is 4 percent less,” he added.

The direction he was given when he was hired, he said, was to build “a volunteer system supplemented by professionals.”

At the same time, he added, he’s determined not to do anything to compromise morale.

“The employees here are excellent,” he said. “They’re our greatest asset.”

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