There’s no big secrets behind the curtain, said incoming South King Fire and Rescue Fire Chief Vic Pennington of the district’s 2020 budget.
The public meeting held Oct. 14, in which no members of the public attended, outlined the proposed 2020 budget for the department to the board of fire commissioners. The board adopted the budget at their Oct. 29 meeting.
“The 2020 budget signifies the seventh year since 2009 that assessed values have stabilized,” according to the budget documents.
South King Fire operated on a $32,493,656 budget in 2019, projected to increase by approximately $1.3 million in 2020, to a budget totaling $33,775,889.
Personnel costs remain the dominant use of funds at 87.9% or approximately $29.7 million.
The expense increase is driven by the department’s goals to fully staff an additional aid car, maintain and expand the services of the Community Medical Technician/Cares unit, and support the new chief in his changes with administrative staff, among other aims, according to budget documents.
The department runs upwards of 20,000 emergency calls per year and each station has a primary area of Federal Way, Des Moines, or unincorporated King County they are responsible for, Pennington told the Mirror.
This high call volume led to a need for a fully-staffed aid car at Station 63, which services west Federal Way from 1st Avenue to Dash Point/Hoyt Road and approximately Southwest 320th Street to Southwest 356th Street.
To provide a greater service to the community, the increase from part-time staffing to full staffing of the aid car will cost roughly $1.2 million in employee costs, according to Joe Ganem, executive director of business operations for SKFR. This total does not include the cost of fuel, equipment, apparatus wear and tear, among other considerations, he noted.
“Adding Aid 63 will allow us to provide quicker service to the residents on our west side,” Pennington said. “It will allow the aid car to take the aid calls first in front of the engine.”
As SKFR’s services cover the areas surrounding the Puget Sound, the department is responsible for shorelines ranging from Dash Point to beyond Des Moines, along with occasionally providing services to Vashon and Maury islands.
The department’s fire rescue boat, which has been in use since 1985, has been refurbished and upgraded several times throughout the years, but it is “reaching the end of its life,” Pennington said.
With conversations of new transportation routes circulating, such as the potential for a foot-ferry service from Tacoma to Des Moines, South King’s fireboat is a necessary regional asset, Pennington said.
“If that [foot ferry] happens, that increases our risk, in terms of having to respond to a risk on the water,” Pennington said.
“One of the advantages of me being affiliated with another city is I’m able to — and it isn’t a secret — I have access to information,” said Pennington, who also serves as the deputy mayor of Des Moines.
Replacement of the Marine 67 rescue boat would cost approximately $1.2 million. To secure these funds, the department is investing $48,000 into a legislative advocate to provide fire district lobbying services at the state and federal levels during the 60-day legislative session beginning in January 2020.
“We’re working on a state and federal level to get monies to do that,” Pennington said. “The best way to do that is to hire the services of a legislative advocate that has the ability to open some of those doors … I believe that it’s money well spent to work on that.”
After the failure of a $53.7 million bond in April 2015 on the special election ballot, fire commissioners decided to reduce the size of the bond measure down to $39 million, removing some of the improvements originally planned, including the purchase of a new fireboat.
“We heard the public,” Ganem said. “That was too much to ask for at the time.”
Removing the boat replacement from the bond reduced the bond amount to a palatable amount for the public, he added.
“The fire department has to have a boat,” Ganem said. “So we have to find a way to pay for it.”
The SKFR Cares unit, previously named Community Medical Technicians (CMT), manages low-acuity calls, to reserve aid and engine responses for high priority emergencies, and provides victims with resources through social workers. In the last year, 71 times when the Cares unit responded to a low-acuity call, a high-priority call came in.
In a cost-sharing partnership with Valley Regional Fire Authority and Mountain View Fire and Rescue, SKFR budgeted $64,000 to add an additional social worker to the Cares unit, for a total of three social workers.
Another notable investment in the $789,420 capital fund budget is the department’s use of $50,000 to redesign and rebrand their website, which is no longer supported by longtime provider CivicPlus.
“For me, it’s about making our website easier to use, more accessible, more transparent,” Pennington said. “… We do utilize your tax dollars and you need to know where they go. You need to be able to access information easily.”
This website will allow the department to put additional information on the website for public viewing.
The department has yet to make a decision whether they will remain with CivicPlus and comply with the company’s upgrades, or find a new platform, Ganem said.
Most of the department’s approximately $35.7 million revenue derives from property taxes at $29.4 million in total. The effective levy rate, a multi-year lid lift passed in August 2018, remains at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, up seven cents from the 2018 collections of $1.43/$1,000.
“The short-term future appears secure and the long-term future looks brighter than previously experienced,” the budget document concludes.