The Finance Committee for the Idyllwild Fire Protection District has begun discussing and preparing a tax measure that may go before voters in November.
The committee believes IFPD’s budget is inadequate to fund programs and initiatives in the future. At the Feb. 24 meeting, committee members focused first on the need for more revenue for staff salaries and benefits. At future meetings, a five-year Capital Improvement Plan will be reviewed, too.
Committee Chair Nancy Layton, a fire commissioner, would like to have a recommendation to the full commission for its March 22 meeting.
Since expenses consume most of IFPD’s annual revenue, the committee expects to seek more revenue through an increase in the annual parcel or unit fee, which is currently $65 for a single-family home. Fees for larger structures are greater.
Salaries and benefits represent about 75 percent of the budget, which is the primary reason the committee started with this issue. In 2012, when district property taxes — the bulk of annual revenue — precipitously fell, firefighters and staff agreed to a 7-percent salary reduction and to pay 2 percent more of the retirement costs. This was a year after the district’s constituents rejected a measure doubling the parcel fee.
The committee expressed a desire to restore the salary and benefit level to the 2012 level. After reviewing the salary levels for the cities of Cathedral City, Corona, Hemet, Murrieta, Palm Springs and Riverside, committee members also discussed further increases. Layton acknowledged that it was very difficult to get comparison of other special fire districts of similar size to Idyllwild.
“We should be considering parity with other areas,” Layton added. And Sue Weisbart, a committee member, also expressed concern about attrition and future retention; although the chief acknowledged that only one full-time firefighter has left the department for money reasons.
Reserves receive very competitive training at Idyllwild and find full-time placement easily because of their preparation here, according to Chief Patrick Reitz, who added, “We have no trouble attracting people.
“We don’t need to be the Beverly Hills of Riverside County nor the bottom,” Reitz urged. “We should pay firefighters an appropriate wage.”
IFPD’s Labor and Negotiating Committee has been meeting with the Career Firefighters Association this year, but has not reached any agreement the Finance Committee could use for projecting future costs.
Commission President Jerry Buchanan indicated that a new agreement might be on the agenda of the commission’s next meeting.
“We do not have the best EMS response times in the county and we did not obtain our ISO 2 without our highly trained, expertly skilled and dedicated employees; and the expectation is that we will continue to do the same into the future,” Reitz added in an email. “To do all of that costs money.”
No decision on the salary issue was made last week. The committee scheduled another special meeting for Wednesday, March 9, in addition to its regular monthly meeting on March 16.
Besides a specific recommendation on future salary levels, the committee plans to address capital improvements and deferred maintenance at the fire station, as well as equipment for firefighters. Funds for these purposes may be supplemented with the grant applications the department has and is planning to file, as well as a loan request from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Among the projects included in the CIP are replacing the shake siding on the station, installing heat-efficient windows and doors, replacing the apron in front of the bay doors, computers, phone system, equipment such as breathing apparatus, chain saws, new Jaws of Life and heart monitors.
Top priorities in the plan include replacing the chief’s and captains’ vehicles, the breathing apparatus gear and a compressed air unit. Estimated cost is $135,000.