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Layoffs save $300K for cash-strapped South King Fire

South King Fire and Rescue announced the layoffs of four employees in a move that will save nearly $300,000 annually.

The cash-strapped fire district still faces an annual budget shortfall of $2.3 million — and is running out of options to maintain its current level of emergency services.

The eliminated positions include a fleet mechanic, administrative assistant, facilities assistant and public education officer. Although the layoffs are effective Nov. 1, the employees were notified last week and given the rest of the month off. Each received a three-month severance per district policy.

The fire district’s revenue, which comes from property taxes, has declined nearly 22 percent the past three years, according to the district. The district collects a levy of $1.50 per every $1,000 of assessed value on property.

“We saw this coming,” said Chief Al Church. “Our budget basically rides on how the housing market is going, and it’s going down the tubes.”

Counting the four layoffs, the South King Fire now operates with 21 fewer positions. That number includes 17 positions (12 of those being firefighters) that have been vacant the past two years.

Church said almost 90 percent of the district’s budget goes toward personnel. The fire district is tapping a reserve fund of $17.3 million to make ends meet, Church said. However, those reserves are limited. The district is required to keep nearly $11 million available to cover areas like first-quarter payroll and medical benefits.

This leaves about $6 million in reserves that can be tapped, should South King Fire’s board of commissioners give the OK. The total operating budget for 2011 was approved for $22.6 million — 2.68 percent less than the 2010 budget.

“Our reserves only last for so long,” said Deputy Chief Gordie Olson. “Even if revenue and property values were flat next year, we’d be the same amount in the hole.”

In the meantime, the fire district is working with the labor union on concessions, Church said. In January, the International Association of Firefighters Local 2024 agreed to forgo a cost of living wage increase in 2011. That concession is expected to save nearly $247,000 this year. Under a three-year contract negotiated in 2008, union members were eligible for cost of living increases between 2 percent and 6 percent each year.

Fire district officials say more revenue is needed to prevent further layoffs or the closing of fire stations. It is up to the board of commissioners to decide whether to seek more funding from voters. In 2010, the district tried to address the funding shortfall with a proposed service benefit charge (known as Prop. 1). The funding formula would have charged each property owner a fee based on fire risk and square footage, and would have allowed the district to maintain its level of service at the time. Voters rejected the measure (51.5 percent) in the August 2010 primary election. Since then, the fire district has cut one of four EMT vehicles, known as aid cars, while reducing another to part-time status. The district also reports a slight increase in emergency response times.

In a recent forum for the upcoming November election, three of the four candidates for the fire district’s board of commissioners advocated for sending another funding proposal to the voters.

The district serves more than 150,000 residents in Federal Way, Des Moines and unincorporated King County.

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(This report includes information from past Mirror reports.)

 

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