The Key Peninsula Board of Fire Commissioners unanimously voted to approve its 2024 budget for the KP fire district Nov. 14, calling for projected expenditures of some $13.9 million. It’s an 8% increase in overall expenses over the 2023 budget.
A significant portion of the budget is allocated to essential operating expenses, like training programs, equipment purchases and building maintenance. Paying for employee salaries — including a 4.6% cost of living adjustment — overtime, benefits (medical insurance premiums went up 3%) and insurance typically makes up about 75% of the budget.
“Expenses continue to increase; it’s just crazy,” said Board Chair Stan Moffett. “Everything is going up and it impacts us severely each and every year.”
KPFD 16 is funded by taxes on KP property, mostly residential. The district has three levies: a fire levy, an emergency medical services levy, and a maintenance and operations levy. The M&O levy will be up for renewal in 2024.
Among the big ticket capital expenses for 2024: $200,000 for technology services; a $121,000 down payment on a new mini-pumper fire truck for $341,460; $111,000 toward replacing self-contained breathing devices for $500,000; and $90,000 for new roofs and paint for Stations 44 (next to Gateway Park) and 49 (Longbranch).
“We won’t need to come up with that $500,000 all at once,” said Fire Chief Nick Swinhart. “All the major SCBA manufacturers have loan programs; (the $111,000) is what we anticipate we might need to come up with for a first-year loan payment.
”The budget anticipates significant cuts to administrative overtime and about a 10% increase for line personnel. “Overtime is notoriously hard to predict,” Swinhart said. “We tend to use averages from previous years to try to predict what it will do.”
The district will soon be paying much less for its evolving IT system, however, which had been contracted through Central Pierce Fire & Rescue for $220,000 a year.
“Central Pierce notified us a couple months ago that our 2024 costs were going to increase to $330,000,” Swinhart said. Instead of paying that, the district will move to a new provider over the next year. “Once we are fully transitioned, our IT services cost will drop down to around $120,000 per year."
Perhaps the most visible expense is the $310,000 the district will spend to pay down debt. That includes the final payment on a loan for a medic unit the district bought three years ago and payments — including $37,000 in annual interest — toward a bond used to buy property. The district spent $2.125 million on Key Center real estate two years ago for a potential new headquarters building and will begin repaying the principal in December 2024, when payments of approximately $129,000 will be due twice a year until 2040 unless one or more of the properties is sold before then.
KPFD recently completed a capital improvement plan that took much longer than anticipated, with an initial recommendation for using the property. It also includes input about improving existing fire stations. “I thought we’d be much further along in this whole process,” Moffett said. “Frankly, I thought we’d be having discussions and town halls about this plan two years ago.” He admitted that some internal strife and “bad feelings” between the community and district over the last few years have led to the delays.
Newly-elected Commissioner John Pat Kelly said the board of commissioners is to blame.
“We are not financially ready for these big, grandiose plans,” said Kelly, who was concerned that the 2024 budget shows just $210,000 going into the reserves. “The debt is crippling us. We are one disaster away from financial ruin and I haven’t seen anything from the board that shows there are financial problems. It seems like (the current board) is waiting for a taxpayer bailout.”
Kelly was scheduled to take his seat on the board at its Nov. 28 meeting.
“I would love to have a new headquarters when we can afford it, and that time is not right now,” he said. “Let’s put (the capital improvement plan) up on a high shelf and once we build our financial reserves we can pull it down and see if it makes more sense.”
Kelly mentioned that while he is against funding a new headquarters at this time, he fully supports Swinhart and Assistant Chief Chris Beswick. “This is the kind of leadership KPFD needed all along.”
Moffett said earlier this year the board hired an outside firm to review district finances and help come up with a 10-year plan. He is looking for opportunities to better engage with the public and help break down communication barriers. To help bridge that gap, the 2024 budget calls for a Citizens Fire Academy to educate the public on how the fire service works, including how the district is funded.
“A lot of that disagreement comes from people in the community who don’t have the facts and information about what’s going on,” Moffett said. “A lot of people don’t get that information because we can’t reach everybody.”
Kelly wants to either add study sessions that are open to the public or make the board’s bimonthly meetings longer to give attendees more time to get their questions answered.
Coming up for renewal in November 2024 is the $800,000 Maintenance & Operations levy. Moffett calls those funds crucial to the district’s operating budget. “If (voters don’t approve the levy), that unfortunately means layoffs, and people are our most valuable asset,” he said.
Though Kelly agreed with that, he said he is undecided on the levy. “The district has squandered away money and community support. It was unthinkable years ago to vote down a levy. I don’t even know if I can vote to approve it unless I see some effort there will be change. That’s what the public wants, for the board to show us they're willing to change."
UNDERWRITTEN BY NEWSMATCH/MIAMI FOUNDATION, THE ANGEL GUILD, ROTARY CLUB OF GIG HARBOR, ADVERTISERS, DONORS AND PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT LOCAL, INDEPENDENT NONPROFIT NEWS