Fire District is running out of money while in arbitration with Union
By KTVL Staff/KTVL.com
KLAMATH FALLS, Ore.-Klamath County Fire District No. 1 said it is facing a financial deficit.
Fire Chief, Jim Wenzel, said though costs have gone up, 77 percent of the district's funding comes from property tax revenues, and those have gone down. "We have projected that we're gonna run out of funding probably in late May or sometime during June," said Wenzel.
The Fire Chief said last year KCFD#1 had to file a balanced budget, but had to cut six firefighter positions to do so. Wenzel said, "Luckily those positions were vacant at the time, but because the contract wasn't settled we have to continue to fill those spots and we have to do that with hiring people and also with overtime we didn't budget for."
International Association of Fire Fighters Local 890 President and Firefighter, Shane Malone, agreed that overtime pay is one reason the district is facing financial troubles. "If they put on five guys starting Feb. 1, I believe, so in five months, it was gonna knock over $300,000 of their $727,000 debt out, and we estimated if they'd just done that by itself last July when we told them they should be hiring people instead of running us short, we wouldn't even be having this discussion," said Malone.
The Fire Chief and everyone else above Captain status, is not a Union member, but is part of the District's Administrative Staff. Every three years, both parties negotiate their contract. The last contract period ended June 30, 2012 and the Union has filed for arbitration, because they can't come to terms on a current contract.
"We're looking at things such as the length of the contract and the minimum daily staffing and, uh, pay issues and also the shift schedule," said the Fire Chief.
The Local 890 President said the main reason they couldn't agree was the minimum staffing. "Throughout the bargaining process they wanted to eliminate what we call a minimum staffing. For us it's a huge safety issue and it's also safety of the public, having a minimum number of firefighters on duty for the number of calls we have and the size of calls we have, you know. Firefighting is manpower intensive. We need people and if we're running short we're not gonna be able to do the job," said Malone.
Malone said, in an attempt to avoid arbitration, the Union gave a little in Nov. "[...] but they didn't like the stipulation that if they took a raise we would get one too and then on the staffing we wanted, originally we were asking we would go suspend the staffing until June of 2015, but if they lost anybody through retirement or quitting, that they wouldn't fill those vacancies until our vacancies were filled and they didn't like that, so we actually deleted that in our final offer for arbitration," said Malone. The Union President said it was also willing to suspend raises for its members for two years, putting them three years between raises.
Malone said, regardless of the offers the Union gave, the District still wanted to remove a minimum requirement on firefighters on duty. "They've never actually given us a number. They want the staffing minimums gone. They did hand us a piece of paper that showed how we would respond from current staffing and removing one guy at a time 'til it got as low as 11. They said they would even go lower if needed," said Malone.
Malone said, according to the only recognized national standard, NPFA 1710, put out by the National Fire Protection Association, "for any 2,000 square foot residential structure fire, they recommend having 15 people. If you're having to run a truck operation, 17 people. So with 16 on duty, that leaves one extra guy and we also run medical calls. So we're running short now, um, also in that standard, we should have four-men engines, we're only running three and we're not wanting to drop lower than we are. When we think you know, some staff cuts would be prudent [...] we feel we're a little bit top heavy," said Malone.
Chief Wenzel explained, if fire personnel was reduced, there would still be three-firefighter crews. "Each crew has a minimum of three people. We haven't gone below that minimum. So the crews are trained to effectively fight fire with crew sizes for the individual crews at three firefighters, we would just have less of those three-person crews," said Wenzel.
Malone said cutting crews would lengthen response times and said it's not right for Union members to "take the brunt" of the deficit when it was mismanagement of finances at the Administrative level that got the District into the deficit. "We are the ones that have to make all the sacrifices while they're making none," said Malone. He added, "During bargaining, one of the issues came up, you know, about the overtime. Them wanting to eliminate it. We asked about the Battalion Chiefs' overtime and they said that's different. If it comes out of the same line item, we didn't understand how that was different, but they said they weren't even gonna talk to us about that."
The Union President said the District claimed Fire Station Three and the Administrative Building, Station Six, were both renovated with grant money. "We've used their documents and we've come up with about a $420,000 that's not covered by the grant," said Malone.
He said one of the District's old Fire Marshals was made Project Manager of the Station Three renovation. "I'd estimate over $100,000 probably closer to $140,000 in his wages and benefits, when most departments that are having this kind of a financial problem, one of the Chief Officers will take care of being a Project Manager," said Malone. He added, with a Fire Marshal position now open, the only Deputy Fire Marshal was promoted to fill the vacancy, "He's getting supervisory wages, but supervises nobody. He has an empty department and we're giving those wages to him and paying the old one to be a Project Manager," said Malone.
The Union, according to Malone, was opposed to the building of Station Five by the Running Y. "We didn't feel that was a benefit to the public and it had a direct effect on the firefighter safety," said Malone. He said the station took three firefighters from the core of the city, where stations respond to 2000 calls a year, to put them in Station Five, which gets 100 calls a year. Malone said Station Five now sits abandoned because the district could not afford to keep it staffed, but still costs $150,000 a year to keep.
Malone said, he would think the District would be more prudent after having declared a state of fiscal emergency.
When asked if Klamath County Fire District No. 1 would have to make cuts as a result of the financial deficit, Chief Wenzel said, "It's a little early to tell that. Right now, we don't have any plans to cut any personnel."
Local 890 has requested the mediator return in April to try and agree on a contract before starting arbitration.