Fire District sounds the alarm for more funds

Pay raises haunt county; layoffs could result

Tom Shellenberger, left, Moab Valley Fire Protection District Commission chair and Chief T.J. Brewer learned Grand County is not in position to help it shore up a projected $200,000 budget shortfall at a joint meeting held Tuesday, Oct. 1. Photo by Doug McMurdo

The Moab Valley Fire Protection District requested help from the Grand County Council to fill a projected $200,000 budget shortfall during a joint meeting Tuesday, but Grand County has its own budget problems that could lead to either the first property tax increase in 13 years or sweeping, across-the-board cuts to its 13 departments – including a potential reduction in force.

The irony was not lost on Grand County Clerk-Auditor Chris Baird, who has been sounding the budget alarm since the council approved pay raises for almost all county employees last year. To be fair, the move came at a time when the county was losing employees at an alarming rate due to salaries that fell far behind those earned in the private sector or other local and regional governments.

They essentially took money out of the bank to implement the pay increase to the tune of $1.2 million and have not found a revenue stream to support it going forward.

The Grand County Council, at its Oct. 15 meeting, will discuss whether to pursue a property tax increase and schedule a Truth in Taxation hearing.

All of this led to less-than-good news for the Moab Valley Fire Protection District Commission.

Chair Tom Shellenberger was hoping for a “conclusion” to the request at Tuesday’s meeting, seeking a one-time infusion of cash to keep the district solvent while the district seeks a property tax increase of its own.

Much of the shortfall is due to department responses to incidents outside of the district boundaries, for which Grand County is responsible to pay.

Baird said he spoke to LeGrand Bitter, the executive director of the Utah Association of Special Districts, and discovered the district could expand its boundaries by annexing areas of Grand County that are not part of any district – Castle Valley and Thompson have their own districts.

The immediate benefit in doing so would help the district realize about $80,000 in new growth next year, but the district would have to freeze its tax rate to earn more. The fly in this particular ointment is that voters have to approve special service district tax increases.

“I think annexation is the cleanest,” said Grand County Council Chair Evan Clapper. Currently, the district is funded by taxpayers within the district and by billing the county when it responds to areas outside of the district.

Council Member and Castle Valley resident Greg Halliday said he’s being taxed twice – once by the Moab Valley district and again by the Castle Valley Fire District. He said there’s a “huge area” in the county that has no fire district. “Those people aren’t paying taxes to anyone.”

“I agree with you,” responded Moab Fire Chief T.J. Brewer, who said the district needs a long-term solution and he agreed annexation was an option.

Shellenberger pointed out that equipment was expensive and that expansion would add to its annual expenses.

Council Member Terry Morse noted the Moab department responded to 162 incidents inside the district and 52 outside, or about 35 to 40 percent of all calls. He said most of the responses were accident-related rather than fire, something he said “seems out of balance.”

Morse said the department could hypothetically make the “cold hearted” decision to enact a policy that it no longer respond to anything outside of the district. Morse made it clear he was speaking in general terms and not advocating for such a policy in light of the need to provide emergency services.

Brewer noted that many of those accidents involved people trapped inside vehicles, a problem that requires the special skills and equipment that only fire departments possess. He also said it’s necessary to have equipment and personnel dedicated to outside-the-district responses.

Shellenberger said a crew was sent to cover shifts at the Green River Fire Department in Emery County following the death of its chief. On that subject, Grand County first responders often handle incidents in Emery County, for which no payment is received.

In response to a question from Council Member Mary McGann, Baird said the fire district would have to go through the same Truth in Taxation process the county is mulling—and freeze its current rate—in addition to annexation. If it merely annexes, it would receive a one-time shot in the arm of $80,000.

He suggested the district expand to all of the county but for Castle Valley, an idea Thompson Fire Chief Mark Marcum wholeheartedly endorsed. He is the lone member of the Thompson Fire Department and the Moab Valley department automatically responds to calls in Thompson.

It was noted that finding members to serve on Thompson’s seven-member fire district board has been an abject failure. There is currently one person serving. In other words, there would likely be zero opposition to Moab Valley absorbing Thompson.

But that did nothing to shore up the $200,000 shortfall, and Shellenberger said the district wanted a “donation” from the county.

“We’re in a position we can’t afford services we’re providing now,” said Baird.

“That sounds like the same tune we heard last year, just before you gave yourselves a big raise,” responded Shellenberger.

Baird said the county’s situation was precarious. On Wednesday, he said the pay raise was the right decision to make as the number of employees leaving reached emergency status, but he also said laying off people is a real possibility at a time when every department is short on employees.

Baird advised Shellenberger the fire district has to decide what course of action it will take by Oct. 22 and that the proposed rate would have to be advertised. There is time to get it done before the end of the year provided it moves quickly to meet deadlines.