Two months ago, the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors approved a temporary cash bailout for five of the eight rural fire protection districts.
But with the fiscal fix came an admonishment that the districts needed to come up with a long-term solution to their budget problems.
One of those agencies approved for funding was the Rescue Fire Protection District.
A small district, RFPD serves around 3,000 residents on a budget of $1.4 million.
It plans to apply the $70,000 it will receive from the county towards continued funding of two positions previously paid for through a federal grant.
Like other fire districts in the county, Rescue is in something of a bind. On the one hand it wants to retain its own identity as a community based fire district. On the other, it is struggling to do so after the 2008-09 housing market debacle cost it $100,000 in property tax revenues followed by the loss, two years ago, of $200,000 from the county’s “Aid to Fire” program.
Mike Applegarth, principal analyst in the Chief Administrative Office, said financial projections for Rescue indicate that, “expenditures will exceed revenue over the next two years. If this plays out as projected the district will incur a significant erosion of fund balance and fall below the 8 percent minimum reserve recommended by the Fire Advisory Group.”
However, Thomas Keating, chief of RFPD, sees things a little differently, saying the district and its board have been proactive in cutting expenses and keeping the budget balanced.
“We’re holding our own,” he said. “The board and prior chiefs have been very conservative, so we’re probably in a better financial position than some. We’re very conservative in how we spend our money. Most large purchases have been paid off so we don’t have any financing. We never had 3 percent at 50 retirement. We have funded our retirement payments and undesignated reserves. But we have used some reserves to balance the budget in the last couple of years. We aren’t rich by any means, but we aren’t having the same problems as El Dorado County or Latrobe fire districts.”
Rescue may also have a little more breathing room because in addition to property tax revenue the community has approved two additional tax measures to support the fire district.
In 1990, residents approved a $50 per parcel tax for fire service and in 2004 approved a benefit assessment. Under the assessment, in the 2013-14 year, property owners pay $87.18 per each improved parcel and $6.36 per acre (maximum of 50 acres) for each unimproved parcel. Those two extra taxes bring in an additional $300,000 to the district, enough to cover the existing loss in revenue but not for any increased costs.
“But things are looking a little more positive,” said Keating. “We received a 1 percent increase in property tax, which was about $10,000. Unfortunately the Workman’s Comp bill came in at $10,000 more than a year before, so it’s kind of a wash. But the employees have stepped up to plate. In 2008 we had seven full-time employees, but are down to five with a potential retirement coming in. For the last five years they have taken no COLAs or increase. They pay part of their retiree costs and health care has been capped. So they have helped to meet the challenges. The district is no longer funding any retiree health care for employees hired after July 1, 2013. We have also capped our health care payments for current employees.”
Currently the district has five full-time employees plus four apprentice positions. The apprentice positions are paid $9 an hour and don’t get health coverage, but are included in the retirement system.
“We also have an intern program,” said Keating. “When the grant expires on June 30, 2014, the district can reduce operating costs by eliminating three apprentice-firefighter positions while still maintaining a minimum staffing of two persons on duty each day. The district will then go from nine full-time employees to six.
“We are always looking where we can do better and bring more depth to our organization,” he said. “Currently we have a shared service agreement with El Dorado Hills. Their deputy chief is retiring in December so we looked if I could help with administration and transitional work and in return they would provide us with training, battalion chief coverage and fire prevention support. We’ll see how it works. It’s kind of a foot in the water.
“The Board of Supervisors has repeatedly said you need to work together more and that’s what we’re doing, going out and trying new things. This is a big step and has been a benefit to both organizations. They’ve always said, if you work together or look at reorganizations, we’ll make sure there’s an opportunity to make the districts whole. But keeping the identity of Rescue is very important. If you look at any consolidation, keeping Rescue is very important. There are different ways to consolidate or reorganize.
“We don’t see ourselves as being pressed. Our board wants to look at the long-term. We’re in a different position than El Dorado Fire. They had significant financial issues. We’re kind of in a spot that we’re holding our own, but if we want to look at five to 10 years down the road, what’s the district going to be? Those are the decisions that have to be made.
“Property tax distribution comes into play. We need a bigger share of property taxes. It comes from county taxpayers and this is a way to recirculate the money back. But it’s a decision the Board of Supervisors has to make. They’re as tired of seeing us as much as we’re tired of going there. It’s no fun. But the solution has to be permanent and has to be long-term.
“If they say, we want to see these three things happen — like reorganizations, joint purchasing or share staffing or whatever — we’re willing to do this, this and this for you. Districts can then make the decisions if that’s where they want to go.
“I think the Board of Supervisors understands where we’re coming from. Rescue, chiefs, boards and employees have tried to be good stewards of taxpayers money. Long-term we will figure something out. We’re just a little better positioned than some, not as well as others.”
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.