The fire district is looking at ways to save money without asking for a levy increase.
The year 2014 could be a turning point for the Gravois Fire Protection District (GFPD) as the department struggles to control escalating costs in the face of nearly flat revenues.
Gravois Fire Chief Ed Hancock says the department will be reviewing operations this year to try to find a way to control costs.
The district wants to continue the level of service it currently provides from fire and motor vehicle calls down to lift assists. Over the next few months, the administration will be looking at how they can continue without cutting service and without asking for a levy increase.
"We'd like to resolve the problem before it affects our ability long term to deliver service," Hancock said. "A levy issue is always a possibility, but we had one in '07 and it's a little early for another. We're hurting, but everybody else is hurting too. We're all doing more with less."
The operations levy rate, not including debt service, was $0.3848 per $100 of assessed valuation with debt service at $0.2544 per $100. In recent years, the district responds to around 800-900 incidents annually.
Last week, the GFPD announced $47,000 in cuts from proposed spending for the year after the initial outlook showed a deficit in the proposed budget. The board balanced the budget at $880,000 largely by eliminating plans to start building savings towards future big ticket expenditures.
The district currently has $116,000 in reserves outside the operations budget after a small operations deficit in 2013. That level of reserves is the equivalent of about three months of operating expenses.
However, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) that will expire in nine years will cost around $179,000 to replace, according to Hancock.
The district cut close to $20,000 in the 2014 budget that was intended for savings toward the future purchase of the SCBAs.
One of the heaviest burdens on the budget has been employee health insurance. With uncertainty in the insurance market due to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), there has been a 40 percent increase in health insurance over the last two years with an 18 percent jump from 2013 to 2014 as the district's original policy was discontinued under the ACA.
Employee health insurance was budgeted at $97,000 in 2014. The district employs nine full-time career firefighters, the chief, deputy chief and administrative assistant.
The department is now waiting on revisions from its insurance agent to see what is available and if they can get a better price.
The board may also consider increasing the employee match for health insurance, though that would likely hurt recruitment and retention of firefighters, says Hancock.
Gravois firefighters are already on the low end of the pay scale compared to other departments, being a couple of dollars per hour lower than other area departments.
Replacing a firefighter can cost around $3,500 and up, not counting the value of tenure at a job, according to Hancock.
Ongoing maintenance and replacement of seemingly small items like batteries and tires for apparatus also quickly mounts up when considered in bulk for all of the units, says Hancock.
Every five years, the district spends about $9,000 on batteries.
The district has already reduced battery expenses in the last couple of years by buying wholesale instead of shopping at a local retailer and buying fuel direct as well.
Now, Hancock says they are also considering a more extended tire replacement cycle and are monitoring utility usage to see how they can be more efficient.
Utility expenses, including electric, propane, phones and water and sewer services, were budgeted at approximately $51,000. The district has seven stations across its 150 square miles, though Station 5 headquarters is the only house manned full time with career firefighters.
The department has started to look for grants that would might help the district improve energy efficiency. Due to the large size of the district and low full time population, however, the district has not had much luck with grants over the years, Hancock says.
While the district's full time population is approximately 10,000, according to Hancock, weekend and seasonal homeowners can raise the population to above 30,000 during the spring and summer and see over 100,000 in the area on peak travel weekends.
The last option for cutting costs in the future would be reducing services, selling equipment or closing a station, according to Hancock.
By eliminating small services like lift assists, the department could see some reduction in costs. But the need for such services exists, and Hancock says he wants the department to continue to provide help as needed.
While the cost of doing business skyrockets, revenues are steady.
The district's main source of funding, property tax revenue, rose about 1.6 percent from 2013 to 2014 — an improvement over the 0.8 percent increase between 2012 and 2013. That translates into an increase of around $3,900 from 2012 to 2013 and about $16,000 from 2013 to 2014.
The increases are due to adjustments based on the Consumer Price Index rather than new construction or increased assessed valuation.
Approximately $875,600 in revenue was budgeted in 2014. The difference between the income and the $880,000 budget is being made up with a transfer from emergency reserves.
The old Station 5 on Firehouse Rd. in Laurie could also eventually supply a one-time funding boost. The board has intended to sell the building since it was closed following the opening of the new headquarters nearby on Hwy. O.
With a struggling real estate market, the board has held back to try to sell when prices are better.
The district also has a couple of old trucks it would like to sell for a good price.
In addition to hampering savings for equipment, the strapped budget has also put long term community safety projects on hold.
The district has long been considering and working on the implementation of building and dock electrical codes.
With no new construction, there is no way to fund an inspector, says Hancock.
Dock safety came to the forefront of the lake area's attention in the summer of 2012 after three people died in two incidents after being shocked while swimming in the lake. The electrical current in the water came from nearby docks.
The GFPD encompasses approximately 63 miles of shoreline.