Opinion

Funding problems and puzzles for Maple Valley Fire and Life Safety | Mike Scott

Over the past two years the Board of Commissioners, leadership team and staff members of King County Fire District No. 43, Maple Valley Fire and Life Safety, have taken aggressive measures to monitor expenditures. Line item budgets and the emergency reserve fund have been reduced, training, travel, overtime and other discretionary costs have been restricted or eliminated. These steps were initially taken after the most recent levy failure in the fall of 2008.

In the spring of 2009, it became apparent to the board that predicted drops in assessed valuation would further impact the agency’s ability to pay the bills. It was apparent then that additional revenue losses would result in layoffs affecting at least four employees.

The options available to the Board of Commissioners included attempting a levy lid lift. That was rejected because the cost of a successful election would potentially cost more than would be gained due to the fact that the District had reached its levy ceiling of $1.50 per $1,000 assessed valuation.

Consideration was given to borrowing against capital bonds. That too was rejected due to the fact that any use of capital bonds to cover operational expenses would have to be paid back into the fund with interest and would slow any financial recovery in the fire district should the economy have improved. The capital bond funds are used for capital improvement projects, apparatus and equipment within the district boundaries and cannot be used to supplement operational expenses without penalty. The capital bond funds support critical improvements to infrastructure and ensure that the department will be in a position to recover when the economy improves.

A Citizen’s Advisory Committee was established in 2009 to evaluate the possibility of placing fire benefit charge (FBC) on the August 2009 ballot. That solution was rejected when it became apparent that the service charge, which requires a super-majority voter approval, may not improve the district levy rates without creating additional burden to community homeowners already facing increased taxes and fees on the County and State level.

Despite my concern in regards to seeking concessions from the labor union, a memorandum of understanding was reached with the firefighters union to forego certain provisions of their labor contract. This agreement as well as concessions from the non-represented employees of the district gave the employees facing certain layoffs a one year reprieve. Labor concessions invariably result in some form of rebate favorable to a bargaining unit. I told them then and remind them now that their efforts would only delay the inevitable by 365 days.

In the spring of 2010, it became apparent that another reduction in assessed valuation was looming. Best estimates from the King County Assessor set a range of negative 4 to 10 percent. The Board of Commissioners requested that the Department Leadership Team prepare a preliminary budget reflecting a 5 percent drop in assessed valuation for properties within the boundaries of the Fire District. The numbers presented to the board indicated that very difficult decisions regarding staffing levels, temporary station closures and layoffs were going to be made to balance the budget. The results of these cuts may result in temporary closures of stations whenever ambulances leave the district to transport patients to area hospitals. The bottom line for public safety within the district boundaries is that response times will be longer and staffing arriving at emergency scenes may be reduced. Most of the public will not experience an appreciable loss in services, but more serious medical and fire events requiring timely coordination of staff and apparatus may experience more serious outcomes.

There are no magic bullets. Steps that had been taken to evaluate candidates for the chief’s position were suspended and Chief Brad Doerflinger was named to continue on as interim fire chief indefinitely. Chief Doerflinger is doing a very commendable job of leading the department in a very difficult time. His leadership is acknowledged and appreciated by the Board of Commissioners and staff of the Department. This decision saved the District money that is being used to support the Operational budget.

More was to follow. On July 1 Assistant Chief Larry Rude became the first department member laid off in the board’s efforts to maintain sufficient staffing to respond to community emergencies. It was not a reflection of Larry’s talents, skills or ability. It was a step to save money. More staff reductions affecting district employees are planned prior to the end of the year. The district staff has been informed of what looms ahead and efforts are being made to assist affected members in career placement. With those cuts, the district should be able to weather a 5 percent reduction in assessed valuation. As more information is forthcoming, a clearer picture will emerge, but the drop could reasonably reach 7 percent.

The Board of Commissioners has reconvened the Citizen’s Advisory Committee and will work with these community members to attempt to identify options that may provide relief to the department, provide information to the public, and sustain emergency response capability to the citizens of greater Maple Valley. Members of the Greater Maple Valley Area Council who regularly attend commission meetings understand the difficulties facing the district and are working to carry this message into the rural communities.

It is the intent of the Board of Commissioners and Department Leadership Team to provide timely and accurate information to members of the community regarding the state of the district. We are working diligently to craft a response to ensure that the community is served and protected. The members of this fire department are committed to sustaining a coordinated response to public emergencies and are working cooperatively through this difficult time to solve the current financial challenge.

Members of the public are encouraged to contact the fire department administration with their questions and are encouraged to attend fire district commissioner meetings.

Mike Scott is the chair of the King County Fire District No. 43 Board of Commissioners.

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