Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Fire District 2012 Budget proposes savings to taxpayers while preserving the highest levels of fire protection

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Orland Fire Protection District makes major cuts in budget

The Orland Fire Protection District board is expected to vote Tuesday to approve next year’s budget significantly reducing expenditures while maintaining the highest level of safety services.

The new budget proposes spending of only $29.3 million, a savings of $830,000 compared to the 2011 budget of $30.1 million. The majority of the budget, about 90 percent, reflects fixed personnel costs that cannot be cut because of union negotiated contracts.

But OFPD Board President Jim Hickey said the $830,000 savings, which reflects only 2.8 percent of the total budget, is misleading. The real savings, he said, reflects the difference between last year’s budget and what next year’s budget would have been without the board action to implement cost-saving efficiencies and cutbacks.

“The reality is that if we had not acted with a mindset to better manage spending, next year’s 2012 budget could easily have reached $32 million because of the many built-in costs that had to be included. Compare that to the 2012 budget of $29.3 million that we are proposing,” Hickey said.

“When we look at the actual change in the budget from last year, we really managed to cut and off-set as much as $2.7 million. When you compare our new budget of $29.3 million with what could certainly have been the budget for 2012, $32 million, based on how the past board leadership managed this district, taxpayers are realizing a significant savings.”

Hickey said the new 2012 budget proposal is expected to be voted on by the full board on Tuesday.

Several mandatory spending projects were off-set by the new board’s efforts to hold the line on spending. Some of those costs include about $600,000 for mandatory wage increases called for by the unions. Although three new positions will be included in the budget, many more existing positions had to be eliminated without resulting in a  reduction of front line fire fighting personnel.

Two other major expenses, Hickey said, that the Orland Fire Protection District is required to spend include Communications upgrades for next year of $100,000. Nearly $200,000 is also needed to pay for improvements to the District’s OptiCom system which allows emergency fire vehicles to control intersection street lights.

“People can play with the numbers all they want. Some will say we only cut 2.8 percent from the total budget, or they might say we cut 28 percent of the part of the budget we had control of,” Hickey said.

“In the end, I think we addressed the two most important issues to our citizens. First, has service changed and the answer is no. If anything, service continues to improve. Second, how much would we have paid as taxpayers next year had we not pursued this hold-the-line approach to the budget and that would have been $32 million with no cuts? That is a different of $2.7 million that taxpayers won’t have had to pay next year in additional spending had nothing been done to bring our budget under control.”

Hickey said that with support of two new board members who ran on a fiscal integrity platform, Chris Evoy and Dr. Blair Rhode, taxpayers will realize a sizable savings next year.

“I thank all of the board members and the Orland Fire Protection District administration for all the hard work put in to this open budget process,” Hickey said.

“But in particular, I want to thank Chris and Blair for their support in holding the line on spending. For many residents, the Orland Fire Protection District represents the third largest amount on our property tax bills. We must be accountable to the public. We are putting all the budget documents online so the public can scrutinize them on their own. We made sure that this budget process was the most open it has ever been in the district’s history.”

Hickey said he expects some of the board’s critics will instead continue to focus on political issues rather than on the positive changes that will benefit residents long term.

Hickey also said that while the budgeted expenses are $29.3 million for 2012, revenues are only $29.1 million.

“That difference is not a shortfall, though. The budget reflects $200,000 that we will be spending to purchase a new ambulance and equipment for it. That money will come from the Capitol Projects Fund which is essentially our savings and is set aside to cover just such an important purchase,” Hickey said.

“In addition to giving taxpayers a major savings, this new budget is also balanced.”

Hickey said the new budget also includes funds to add three new firefighter positions. Although the positions are budgeted, the decision to hire the firefighters or use the funds for overtime will be one decided by the board.

“Our priority is the safety and financial interests of the taxpayers. We think we can balance both together with sacrifice from the other,” Hickey said.