Idyllwild Fire Protection District’s Finance Committee held its first meeting Monday, Feb. 17. Fire Chief Patrick Reitz introduced the citizen’s committee members to the IFPD budget format, source of revenues and a general description of expenses. They also talked about specific issues for this fiscal year (2013-14) and likely budget questions for the 2014-15 budget year, including raising Idyllwild’s parcel fee.

Reitz used his September presentation to the IFPD commission for the 2013-14 budget as the basis of his budget introduction for committee members Chris Davis and Susan Weisbart, and alternate member Calvin Gogerty.

The district’s limited financial resources is a thread Reitz wove through his budget discourse. Larger agencies, such as the Riverside County Sheriff’s and Fire departments, can rely on reserves to help balance their accounts, he said. “We don’t have that luxury. We don’t have reserves.”

Regarding staff, he expressed his gratitude for their assistance in foregoing raises and increasing their retirement contributions in order to keep the budget within revenue limits.

Nearly a year ago, Capt. Mike Mulhall retired, but that position has not been filled, said Reitz, which is creating a savings in personnel costs. IFPD is using reserve firefighters on a limited-term basis to maintain staffing. However, Reitz did say, “There will be a modification to staffing due to an individual on leave. Right now we’re bringing on other folks.”

Besides the district’s parcel fee, ambulance revenue, which has grown in the past several years, is a significant contributor to IFPD’s resources. However, it does not collect all its bills. “Essentially, we collect 40 to 50 percent of what we bill because of Medicare, Medicaid, insurance and the Affordable Care Act,” he told the group. Reitz plans a specific presentation for the committee later this spring on the subject. A new health contractor now pays only 30 to 40 percent of the Medicaid payment, consequently IFPD receives only $64 per transport to a hospital. Actual cost is in the $1,200 to $1,600 range, Reitz stated.

Besides ambulance revenue, other current-year issues he will discuss with the committee include legal expenses, which are exceeding the budget allocation, mutual-aid reimbursements and $200,000 from selling the cell tower behind the station.

As the committee discussed its plans for drafting the 2014-15 budget, Reitz identified several issues it might have to confront before the fiscal year begins July 1. One is a plan to refinance and consolidate IFPD’s debt into one loan with lower interest rates. Also, he is developing, with another commission committee, a plan for the vehicle fleet, including replacement costs. While IFPD should be setting aside money annually for future vehicle replacement, “We can’t afford to do what we should do to build up reserves,” Reitz said. While Reitz advocates buying new ambulance vehicles, he added that for a department the size of IFPD, used fire engines should be considered.

Another significant future issue is the ambulance contract with Riverside County for service to Pine Cove and areas north. He told the committee of the Board of Supervisor’s decision to renegotiate its current countywide contract with American Medical Response and Supervisor Jeff Stone’s direction to include Pine Cove in the future contract. (See story here.)

“I agree they shouldn’t have to pay extra,” Reitz said about the special parcel fee assessed on County Service Area 38 residents for the contract cost. Reitz speculated that AMR might subcontract with IFPD to serve those areas. However without the contract, Reitz admitted he would have to reduce staffing on each shift.

Compounding potential revenue loss is the Affordable Care Act. While Reitz expects improved emergency service revenue in ACA’s first few years, he said, “… in the long-term, collections [for emergency services] are slated to decrease every year.”

Another future issue Reitz mentioned several times is the possibility of raising Idyllwild’s parcel fee from its current level of $65 — one way to balance the possibility of revenue loss in other areas. He would develop a proposal to show what an increase would provide the community. “Idyllwild constituents have a bargain and have for years. Retirees get cost-of-living increases; we haven’t,” he averred, which is the reason he worries that career staff will leave for other jobs.

The Finance Committee’s next meeting is at 2 p.m. Monday, March 3, at the station.