Fire chief casts a wide net as he unveils VIFR’s new budget

Fire chief casts a wide net as he unveils VIFR’s new budget

Since Matt Vinci’s hire as Vashon’s fire chief only four months ago, the district has seen changes including key new hires in its administrative staff, an increased presence on social media, and even a new website, which launched last week.

Now, Vinci and the district’s new director of finances and human resources, Christina Bosch, have put their stamp on a document that monetizes more changes in the district — VIFR’s 2023 budget, set for a vote next week by the board of commissioners.

In addition to hosting four public commissioner meetings, held in October and November, during which the budget was discussed in detail, Vinci also invited islanders to two “Coffee with the Chief” drop-in events at The Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie in recent weeks.

At these events, and online, he also shared a fact sheet — viewable online here — outlining key elements of the 2023 budget plan.

The fact sheet includes data supporting Vinci’s determination to increase the staffing of career firefighters in the district, as well as identifies almost half a million dollars in federal and county funds, previously untapped by VIFR, to help pay for the expansion.

In an interview last week, Vinci said that he’s enjoyed talking to islanders about the budget and that they have been supportive of his aim to restructure the district’s operations to ensure that it can better serve Vashon.

Noting that property owners pay for the bulk of the district’s operations through a tax levy that in 2023 will supply almost $5.5 million in revenue to the district, he said that islanders have a right to expect the fire district to operate at its highest level.

“People want services,” he said. “They want their fire district to be there when they need it most — and our mission is life, safety and property conservation.

The budget, viewable at, is expected to win final approval from VIFR’s five-member board of commissioners at another public meeting on Monday, Nov. 28. For more information about the meeting, visit

Increasing staff

The new budget, with revenues and expenses matching at $6,722,912, calls for staffing 20 full-time salaries for firefighters/EMT, in order to meet a goal of having five firefighters on every shift at the station.

In contrast, VIFR’s 2022 budget funded a staff of 13 full-time professional firefighters, augmented by a small cohort of part-time paid firefighters as well as its volunteer force.

Throughout 2022, Vinci said, it has been rare to have more than three paid staff members on duty at any time, using this model of staffing.

For Vinci, the rationale for the increased staffing is clear.

Vashon is accessible by ferry only and unable to receive timely mutual aid from mainland departments, he said. Ferries also factor into VIFR’s average transport time of approximately three hours for island patients to mainland hospitals. In 2022, Vinci said, the district has made approximately 370 such transports, with each transport typically requiring two paid staff members.

In cases of local structure fires, the need to have five firefighters on each shift is even more urgent, he said, as a Washington statute requires that firefighters cannot begin to extinguish the interior of a structure fire without having two firefighters inside, and two outside, the structure.

Both the local firefighters’ union, as well a majority of the board of commissioners, have voiced strong support for Vinci’s call for additional paid firefighter positions.

The push to increase the full-time force began months before Vinci’s arrival on Vashon — and included a strongly worded letter, sent to the commissioners by the firefighter’s union in April, calling VIFR’s current level of protection at that time “substandard and dangerous.”

VIFR’s board also mandated, in April, that the district attempt to staff each shift with four firefighters, up from a level of three, by offering optional additional shifts with overtime pay to the district’s career staff.

But this staffing model also proved to be unworkable, both Vinci and firefighters have said repeatedly in recent months, citing burnout of the staff, and the lack of ability to meet the goal to fill the fourth firefighter position on most shifts. Even so, the district also incurred just over half a million dollars in overtime costs, year to date, in 2022 — a direct result of inadequate levels of staffing, said Vinci.

Vinci described his plan to boost the district’s staff to 20 firefighters as a trifecta — “better for the staff, better for the budget, and better for the island.”

The new budget also defunds VIFR’s part-time paid firefighter program, which is currently completely unstaffed, due to attrition. The salary and benefit costs of that program — budgeted at approximately $400,000 in 2022 — have now been allocated to other personnel costs.

Additional revenues

VIFR’s 2023 budget proposes salary costs for career firefighters of just over $1.8 million — an increase from the $1.6 (budgeted) and $1.3 million (actually paid out) in such salaries in 2022.

However, that increase in expense is offset by the addition of substantial new revenue.

The district’s 2023 budget adds $317,867 in revenue by aligning VIFR as a participant in the federal government’s Ground Emergency Medical Transport Program (GEMT), which will provide VIFR with supplemental payments to close the gap between its actual costs and amounts received from transporting Washington Apple Health (Medicaid) patients.

Previously, both finance director Christina Bosch and Vinci said, VIFR had not participated in the program, despite its eligibility to do so.

Another $164,373 will be added to the district’s budget in 2023 from its participation in King County’s Mobile Integrated Health (MIH) program — funded by the already-existing King County’s EMS Levy — and will enable VIFR to provide additional resources, including home visits, for high-need patients on Vashon.

VIFR’s participation in the program, said Vinci, would also take some stress off of the 911 system on the island.

The district has also long been eligible to participate in the MIH program, and the $164,000 revenue from joining the program in 2023 will reflect payments the district can retroactively claim for the past four years. Starting in 2024, the program will add about $45,000 in revenue to the district’s budget each year.

The quest for additional sources of funding, including grants and existing county levy funds that have gone unused, is ongoing, said Vinci.

“We’re going to look at every opportunity possible to leverage grant resources to provide the highest level of service on the island as possible,” he said.

Another $88,000 in revenue for the district, according to the 2023 budget, will come from an expansion of rental income from the use of the district’s cellular tower by major communications companies, he said.

Health and wellness

VIFR’s 2023 budget also includes $65,000 in new wellness and fitness programs for all members of VIFR — funds that will be spent on a variety of things including new equipment to properly clean contaminated firefighters’ protective gear, new fitness equipment to be installed in Station 55, and a full-member retreat, led by nationally-recognized facilitators, addressing all aspects of members’ physical and mental health.

Broader health in the community will be funded through a line item of $36,500, establishing, among other initiatives, widespread community training in CPR.

Two division chiefs

Changes in VIFR’s administrative leadership structure — part of Vinci’s overhaul of the district — are also incorporated into the district’s 2023 budget. The position of assistant chief of the district, currently unfilled, will be eliminated, as will the district’s current position of battalion chief for training and safety.

These positions will be replaced by two new ones — a division chief for fire and emergency medical services, and a division chief for training and safety. A new salary expense of $145,600 for the latter position is included in the 2023 budget.

In addition, the budget includes an expenditure of $36,500 to create a broad-based community risk reduction and fire prevention program, as part of the MIH program.

Fleet replacement

The new budget also includes the expense of $191,000 for an upgrade that Vinci has requested for VIRF’s aging fleet — three new staff vehicles which will arrive in 2023. More upgrades are planned for 2024, including ordering a new aid car and fire engine, to arrive in 2025. Currently, Vinci said, he is also seeking grant funding to replace VIFR’s 28-year-old support vehicle — a converted beer truck that is now 28 years old.


To fund the fleet purchases as well as planned renovations to VIFR’s Station 55, VIFR’s budget also calls for the district to add $700,000 to VIFR’s considerable reserve accounts in 2023. Current reserves, in separate accounts for facilities, fleet, general reserves, equipment and volunteer expenses, now total approximately 3.6 million dollars.

In 2023, the reserves for capital construction, fleet replacement and fire equipment will be boosted by $700,000.

Levy Lift

In The Beachcomber’s interview with Vinci regarding VIFR’s finances and the 2023 budget, the fire chief also said he plans to recommend that VIFR commissioners submit a property tax increase to voters next year. If approved, it would take effect in 2024.

Voters approved a similar VIFR “levy lid lift” in 2017. That 6-year measure expires in 2023.

Under state law, taxing districts can increase their property tax levies by no more than 1 percent each year — unless voters approve more.

The VIFR lid lift voters approved in 2017 increased the district’s levy rate from about 94 cents per $1,000 of assessed value that year to $1.50 — the maximum allowed by state law — in 2018.

That, coupled with a big bump in assessed values, increased VIFR’s property-tax revenues by more than 80 percent.

While its tax collections have increased, rising property values in recent years have pushed the district’s levy rate down. It’s projected to be about $1.09 per $1,000 in 2023.