The fate of up to five of the Park City Fire Service District's 16 full-time firefighters will rest with Summit County voters on Nov. 6 when they decide whether or not to approve a tax increase.
According to Fire Chief Kelly Gee, if the increase does not pass, he will have to trim $280,000 from the district budget. Gee said, "Because 71 percent of the budget is personnel, that is where the cuts will be."Budget cuts would also slow response time and would mean fire stations may not be open 24 hours every day and other public services may be eliminated, according to Gee.
Originally, the district was limited to a maximum tax levy of 4 mills (a 1-mill levy raises about $160,000). But, in 1987, the district was funded at a percentage of the Summit County property tax revenues, and that is where the district's financial problems began.
Because of property assessments in 1987, the district's funding was reduced by $300,000. It was forced to bond and has been struggling to break even ever since.
Property assessments have not kept pace with growth. In 1987 assessed property value was $817 million, compared with $890 million in 1990 while there was $330 million in new construction in 1989. Consequently, the district has been left with no alternative but to seek a tax increase, according to Gee. "It's hard to imagine we are at almost the same level as in 1987," he said.
What the district is asking for is an increase on the cap of .0006 cents per tax dollar to .0014 cents. "We won't necessarily have to use that much all the time," said Gee.
Gee has projected a budget for the district into the year 2004 and said he feels what the district is requesting is fair if taxpayers want to continue receiving the kind of fire protection they currently have. "I think we have a pretty good handle on what is going to happen over the next five years," Gee said.
Projections were based on building construction, manpower needs in the most severe seasons and response calls. Gee said, "We've been very good at predicting house fires because most are heating system-related and most happen between 2 and 6 a.m." He also said they can forecast emergency calls fairly accurately because most accidents happen during peak traffic hours between 6-9 a.m. and 5-7 p.m.
Because of the $800,000 loss in 1987, the fire district commission put a wage freeze in place. All salaries and hourly wages were frozen from January 1987 until January 1990, excluding Gee, who is a contracted employee and whose increases were unaffected.
Gee says salaries were never decreased, but when he became chief, he implemented changes that affected some salaries.
In 1985, the district had seven officers and six firefighters, or, in other words, too many chiefs, he said. Gee implemented a testing program for officers and, because of this and what the chief called "other problems," three captains were demoted to lieutenant and two other officers were reduced to firefighters.
In January, all district employees were given merit raises of up to 5 percent based on recommendations from immediate supervisors. Normal merit increases are 3 percent, but the district was allowed the larger increase in order to offset the three-year freeze.
Even with the pay increase, Park City firefighters and officers are among the lowest paid in the state. Base pay for a Park City firefighter is around $2,000 a month, compared with the state average of $2,700. Officers' pay is comparatively as low, while Gee's monthly salary is $1,400 a month lower than the state average.
According to Gee, "PCFD is recognized as one of the most highly trained and motivated departments in the state. We get a lot of calls from other districts asking for our help," he said. "This has more bearing on job attitudes than the pay, but for us to hold this and continue with the same attitude and determination with the pay they get will be remarkable."
The district has recently lost two firefighters to other agencies that offer better pay, he said.
"The current response time of five minutes could increase to 15 minutes, significantly impacting the threat to life and property," they said. This could also affect area insurance rates.
According to fire district literature, the proposed increase would cost the taxpayer between $3 and $15 a month figured on tax assessments on property valued at $60,000 to $300,000.