Update: This article has been revised to report corrected staff numbers.
Two months into his tenure, KP Fire Chief Nick Swinhart told Key Peninsula News the biggest challenges his department faces include balancing the budget and developing a capital facilities plan to determine the fate of its headquarters and the Key Center properties acquired by the department at the end of 2021 for a possible new station and training center.
“We are looking at an approximately $200,000 forecasted shortfall right now” in the department’s $10 million 2022 budget, Swinhart said. “We don’t want to get into October and find out that we still have red ink that we’re addressing, so we’re taking care of it right now.”
“Tax revenues are exactly where they should be to date, so I’m very pleased with that,” said Executive Assistant Christina Bosch. “It’s just controlling the budget so when we get to December, we’re not in that cash flow issue we had in January, February and March this year.”
“Some of the big overruns are administrative cost increases of over $281,000,” Swinhart said. “This includes things like $21,000 for telephone system repair, an $8,000 increase in electricity, software payment increases, increasing insurance costs.”
The department also spent $75,000 investigating two employees accused of misconduct by another employee, according to staff. Both were put on paid administrative leave in 2021 for a number of months. Both were cleared of any wrongdoing and returned to duty in 2022.
“We had to rely on our reserve funds in 2021 and we’d like to get those replaced and then continue to increase for special projects,” Bosch said. “Capital purchases, computers, equipment, apparatus, bunker gear, all of it. That’s a goal I want to see us have … so we’re not having to use our operations budget for these big purchases. I think that’s going to be a better financial plan than what we’ve been trying to work with.”
Bosch said the department ordinarily replenishes its reserve fund regularly, aiming for a cushion of about $2 million. But the reserve is down to $770,000 and will be at negative $200,000 at the end of the year without significant changes.
“We can’t run out of money because we can’t get any more money,” Bosch said. “We could rely on Pierce County, we could get a warrant register, where they help us basically pay our bills, but they’ll charge us a lot.”
Two dramatic budget increases were overtime in 2021 and paying for eight new firefighters hired in 2022, bringing the line staff to 34. Those include 14 hires made or put into motion by former Fire Chief Dustin Morrow, who left the department December 1 to take over Central Pierce Fire & Rescue.
Early in his tenure in 2019, Morrow made three temporary hires permanent and added four new hires. He later initiated a process, only recently completed, to hire an additional seven personnel for a total of 14, filling six vacancies and creating eight positions. This expanded the line staff to 34.
“A big chunk is $300,000 of (budgeted) increased overtime,” Swinhart said. “We expect that it’s going to come down and that increase will probably not be necessary because of these new people.”
Overtime pay and compensatory days off increased nearly 48% from 2019 to 2020, and another 15% in 2021, according to Bosch.
“The original 2021 budgeted overtime was $260,000,” she said. “We ended 2021 with overtime expenditures at $564,500.”
Swinhart said he’s had meetings with the firefighters’ union and the volunteers to find ways to lower overtime and decrease expenses elsewhere.
“I don’t want to talk about specific details because they’re still talking with their members about some of those issues, but what I can say is (there were) detailed discussions to see if we can find ways to decrease those overtime costs.”
The current staffing model put into place by Morrow increased the minimum shift to seven career personnel at all times: two in the Longbranch station, three in Home and two in Wauna. Eighty percent of KP calls are medical, but KPFD responds with both a medic unit and an engine for backup. This is typical across the industry, according to Swinhart, providing physical and medical support to ambulance crews.
Volunteers under Morrow’s model respond only from the Key Center headquarters.
“If you have days where you have nobody taking leave you could potentially have up to 10 per shift,” Swinhart said. “On a given day there’s three leave slots, so there’s an opportunity for up to three people to be gone. If there’s already three people off and someone calls in for sick leave, that’s totally different.”
That’s what causes the overtime. During the height of the pandemic, one firefighter just being exposed to COVID-19 could keep them and their co-workers home.
“That’s why it’s been so vital for us to increase our staffing, especially hiring more paramedics,” Bosch said.
“When things get tight you do absolutely have to figure out what you can do without,” Swinhart said. “It’s very typical for most fire departments where 85% to 90% of your budget is in salary and benefits (KPFD is 89%). I’ve got about 10%, and it’s probably much less that I actually have direct control over without making substantial, detrimental changes to the district.”
Other expenses included new bunker gear for career personnel, new hoses and other equipment, and three new ambulances delivered this spring. Those vehicles cost about $600,000 after deducting the value of $150,000 worth of grants, and were funded by a loan from the state of Washington at a rate of 0.4% payable over five years.
But getting the ambulances meant paying upfront before getting the loan.
The three used ambulances are being sold. The first and best brought in $20,400; the other two are expected to bring another $15,000 and $10,000, respectively, according to Assistant Chief Hal Wolverton, who Swinhart put in charge of both logistics and operations.
The $2.125 million Key Center real estate acquisitions the department made at the end of the year included the Olson estate property, consisting of two parcels located almost immediately across KP Highway from the headquarters station, with a residence and a portion of the pasture behind it totaling 2.8 acres, and the Calahan property, site of the former O’Callahan’s restaurant (aka Reed’s and Buck’s) located at the corner of KP Highway and 92nd Street NW.
Although the financing was obtained well in advance and the interest-only loan payments were planned for, the properties cost $68,000 more than expected. While the residence on the Olson property has been rented, the commercial building on the Calahan property remains vacant. It was expected to generate $70,000 in annual rent, but instead required $23,000 in roof and other repairs and could need another $50,000 to make it rentable, according to Wolverton.
At its June 28 meeting, the board of fire commissioners voted to table any further decisions about the properties until receiving recommendations from the department’s capital facilities planning committee of staff and local residents. Repayment of the loan principal begins in December 2024.
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