(TNS) - It's the only issue on the Aug. 8 ballot, but Sunrise Beach, Mo., Fire Protection District officials are hoping the community will still make the effort to get out and vote on their tax levy proposal.
The department is asking its district for a nine-cent increase to its operating levy. The additional $290,000 per year that is estimated to be generated would fund two more firefighter positions, fund future equipment and maintenance needs and personnel retention.
It's really about staffing, says Fire Chief Dennis Reilly. The district has been adding personnel as possible under its current levy approved by voters in 2013. While national standards set a guideline of having 17 firefighters at the scene of a fire, the department is looking for a reasonable balance between that standard and affordability for the community, according to Reilly.
"We want to make progress toward that industry standard of 17 - that's best practices - without being overly burdensome to the community. We're looking for that sweet spot," he says. "We appreciate that we have people who are on fixed incomes. We see this as a moderate increase that as long as we manage our money, we should be in good shape."
The additional staffing funded by the increase would allow the department to keep its second manned station on Spruce Road open all the time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Currently, it has to close if a firefighter, for example, takes a sick day because there has to be at least two at a station to keep it open. If the levy issue is approved, the department would be able to assign six firefighters to be on duty with a minimum of five.
The SBFPD announced historic staffing levels in November 2016 when it was able to place six full-time firefighters on duty at two fire houses, but can't always maintain that, or even the minimum of five needed to keep both stations open every shift, due to earned time off for personnel in conjunction with an unfilled position.
It is not uncommon for the department to have an unfilled position as firefighters go on better-paying departments and other issues. With the implementation of harder recruit standards, including a recruit academy, the department does not simply hire a new firefighter and immediately put them on duty.
The department currently has 17 full-time firefighter positions in the operations division that covers the district 24 hours a day, seven days a week working 48-hour shifts.
Vacation and sick days are part of the standard benefits package for firefighters, says Reilly. With a lot of competition in this job market due to higher wage positions available elsewhere in the state, it is just not realistic for the department to not offer whatever benefits they can. Because of the nature of 48-hour shift work in the fire service, firefighters can more easily commute a further distance away from their home.
"As seen across the nation, volunteerism is down. Our community is unique in that the majority of full time residents are retired and in many cases senior citizens. We do not have the type of population that tends to generate volunteer firefighters. We are always looking for volunteers, but they are very few in number and we just do not get a lot of interest in people wanting to be volunteer firefighters," according to Reilly.
Having personnel at the Spruce Road station in Shawnee Bend, where many of the district's calls originate, allows the department to respond to the scene of incidents in the area more quickly, according to district response time data analysis. The difference averages around eight minutes or under compared to 13 or more.
The proposed levy increase would also help the department save for current and future equipment and maintenance needs, rather than requiring a bond issue each time.
Sunrise Beach Fire Chief Dennis Reilly has estimated the bump in the levy would allow the district to offer a stable tax rate - as opposed to having to come to voters for general obligation bonds every time it needs to purchase apparatus and major equipment items.
According to Reilly, the district has developed a long-range plan and a system of major item replacements. If this initiative is passed, the district is promising it will not seek another operating levy increase for at least 10 years.
The district currently has approximately $50,000 in its major equipment replacement fund thanks to the sell-off of some smaller less-utilized equipment that was part of a reallocation of resources and a smaller levy increase approved in 2013. That issue allowed the district a seven-cent increase on top of capturing an outgoing debt levy to increase staffing and begin building up an equipment and apparatus replacement fund.
Reilly estimates about another $60,000 per year will be funneled to the replacement fund from the additional funding, if approved. New apparatus - such as engines, aerials, even a fire boat - can easily run $700,000 to more than $1 million.
The district was recently able to purchase replacement turnout gear for firefighters as well as having its fire boat fixed.
The monies from the proposed levy increase would also help the district offset increasing costs of doing business, which is not completely covered by new construction increases in property tax revenues.
The goal, he says, is to not wait to ask for money until the district is crisis mode, but to try to stay ahead at a "sustainable" rate.
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