The bimonthly Key Peninsula fire commission meetings have been unusually well attended since the public first learned the fire district bought $2.125 million worth of Key Center real estate at the end of the year with an eye toward possibly building new headquarters. (See “Fire Commissioners Defend Real Estate Deal …” KP News, Feb. 2022.)
Beyond objecting to the rationale behind the purchases, many attendees have repeatedly asked about the impact on the district’s finances as other large expenses curtail spending at the same time.
In an interview with KP News, Interim Fire Chief Jason Learned and Executive Assistant Christina Bosch described a confluence of events that brought unusual pressure to the department.
“I think a lot of what is going on now are emotional responses to all the changes we’ve endured,” Learned said. “The (changes in leadership), stresses on the staff, overtime expenses, the budget stuff; a lot of people are talking, and a lot of rumors are circulating, and people hear that and say, ‘Hey, what is going on?’ ”
“Financially, we’re stable,” Bosch said. “We’re just in a position right now in the first three months of the year where we do need to be extra cautious only because our tax flow is much tighter than what we’re accustomed to. This is not unusual; I think it’s just hitting at a time when everything else is piling up.”
The budget was not affected by the property purchases, she said, because the financing was acquired well in advance and the interest payments were planned for.
“We did go over in the purchase of the properties by $68,000 because the final prices were higher than anticipated,” she said. “However, the overage (was paid) from our general reserve fund. We did not use operating funds to cover that.”
High overtime expenses and the upfront cost of three new ambulances also made the traditionally lean time of year more stressful.
“When we opened up the third station at Longbranch (in 2019), we budgeted in a spare day of overtime every single day,” Learned said. “The goal since (Fire Chief Morrow) was here is to have enough people on board to staff it without causing the overtime.”
Morrow started with the district April 1, 2019, and left to become fire chief of Central Pierce Fire & Rescue Dec. 1, 2021. Assistant Chief Hal Wolverton was appointed interim chief to replace him until he was put on paid administrative leave Dec. 14 pending an investigation into alleged employee complaints. Division Chief Learned was chosen to fill his place as interim chief.
Morrow hired five new firefighters before he left and started a process to hire seven more that Learned is now completing, he said.
Under Morrow’s model, every shift requires a minimum of seven firefighters, including paramedics. KPFD staffs three stations 24 hours a day: an ambulance with two personnel at Wauna and Longbranch, and an engine with at least two more plus a battalion chief at Home. Two additional chiefs can be called on and volunteers respond out of the Key Center station as needed.
“Obviously, we can’t forecast personnel injuries, we can’t forecast paid family leave, administrative leave, and during all this we got Covid, so we got people either being exposed or testing positive, all those things compounded during these last 12 or 16 months,” Learned said.
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. “In April, we increased the budget to $471,500, but soon realized that this would not be enough and increased it again to $564,700. We ended 2021 with overtime expenditures at $564,500.”
Cash reserves at the end of the year were $150,000 to $200,000 less than usual, she said.
The district recently hired five new line personnel that are training now and is searching for two more lateral hires — experienced firefighter paramedics who can start immediately — to relieve the pressure.
KPFD has 33 line personnel, including the five new members in training.
“The new hires will take us up to 11 per shift (by June), so that will allow us to have the ability to build some buffer into staffing parameters,” Learned said.
Of the 10 new hires in the last two years, five have come from the KPFD volunteer ranks. There are 15 remaining, but only two of them are certified to drive fire rigs and most have full-time jobs, meaning they can respond only on evenings and weekends.
“I can’t fill a shift with volunteers; that would be a violation of the contract,” Learned said, referring to the career firefighters’ union agreement with the district. “But we agreed that if none of the career members are filling a position, I want an opportunity to fill that spot with a volunteer member that can come in and pull shift that day. It’s a last ditch effort to fill that spot so we don’t have to take an engine out of service.”
KPFD also just took delivery of three new ambulances at a cost of $600,000 after deducting the value of $150,000 worth of grants, 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 funds from the loan.
“Once the payment is complete, that proof of payment needs to go to Washington state for verification, then they will release the loan funds back to us,” Bosch said. “We’re at our comfort level for debt capacity. While legally our capacity is much larger, we’re at our maximum comfort level.”
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