NK, Poulsbo fire chiefs say financial crunch is hitting home

Area fire chiefs say the details of the nation’s economic downfall are about to get local.

“It’s definitely a place I don’t think we thought we would be,” said Poulsbo Fire Chief Dan Olson. He and North Kitsap Fire & Rescue Chief Dan Smith say their departments face a similar threat: new construction is down and levy revenues are waning as property values decrease, creating a gap between revenue and the departments’ already bare-bones budgets.

Already both agencies have made significant changes, trimming their budgets, delaying capital purchases and leaving vacated positions unfilled. The Poulsbo Fire Department employs 47 people, NKF&R employs 42.

The Poulsbo Fire Department, after adding Station 72 in Surfcrest in 2008, abandoned its plan to hire six full-time firefighters for the station and instead instituted flex staffing, meaning the station will sometimes be unmanned. Had those six been hired, Olson said, they most likely would have been laid off.

Addressing a three-year financial picture, Olson said assessed property values are expected to continue on the decline, dropping an estimated 12 percent in 2010 and another 10 percent in 2011. When those values drop, levy tax rates normally increase to make up the difference, but for PFD, its two current levies are either at or near their rate increase ceilings.

The estimated value drops, Olson said, mean a potential $2.5 million revenue decrease over the next three years for the department with a $7.3 million annual budget.

Smith faces a parallel problem, and is also reorganizing staffing to balance spending with revenue. NKF&R has put off capital purchasing, but Smith warns a backlog of needs would be far from ideal.

“You can’t do that forever,” he said.

The department, which has a $5.5 million annual budget, responded to 2,454 alarms in the North End in 2008. The number of calls has actually declined, Smith said, and he isn’t sure why. Still, with the department in a deficit, he’s discussing possible layoffs with employee groups.

“We have one mission, and that’s to serve the public that pays us to do that,” Smith said. “Are things challenging? Yes. Are we going to work our way through it? Yeah.”

Olson said at PFD, there are no pity parties. That department will also do what it must, even if it means deeper cuts, including layoffs — which is especially difficult, he noted, in a field where employees remain at a station often for the entirety of their career.

While the departments must run as a business, making smart but hard decisions, they must also balance resources with risk. They must keep response times and their ability to deliver emergency medical services at top priority, Olson said.

“The one thing we feel is essential is to keep our medic units up to date,” he added.

Both chiefs say their departments will work together in part to help fight against economic shortfalls. Shared information services, phone systems, staff training and volunteer coordination are possibilities as each agency makes its own cutbacks.

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