By Leslee Kulba- Most notable in the first-quarter financial update provided by way of Asheville City Council’s last meeting agenda, was a recurring shortfall in the fire department’s budget. Continuing a trend, the department is expected to run $800,000 over budget, all other departmental budgets meeting or exceeding targets. Most of the overrun is attributed to payroll. Over the last few years, the city has iteratively increased the fire department’s budget to reflect the prior year’s actual expenditures. In 2011, Asheville Fire & Rescue spent $12,074,277 on salaries and wages. This year, the city has budgeted $14,228,670 for the same. Benefits run around $5 million a year.
An in-house analysis is underway to study the department’s budget. It will explore alternative staffing models to try to reduce the department’s expenditures on overtime. The city is now recruiting a Fire Financial Analyst to oversee implementation of the study’s recommendations and provide financial planning for future budgets. In FY 2014-15, the city began embedding specialists from Human Resources and Public Affairs in departments that required a disproportionate share administrative services. The FFA will be the fire department’s third dedicated administrative officer.
Back in FY 2013-2014, the city called for a different overtime study for the department. That year, the department lost about $750,000 in annual revenue when Biltmore Forest cancelled its contract with the city. This was offset somewhat by $150,000 in savings from other contract cancellations. But another $190,000 was lost recurrently when the city adjusted its general liability and workers’ compensation programs to reflect current claim, premium, and departmental fund balances data.
Over the past five years, calls for service in the city have steadily increased from 14,038 to 17,529. The city still references its white paper, “Asheville, NC 2010: A Financial Crossroads,” which argued the city had an enormous daytime population, perhaps double its residential base, counting workers, shoppers, and health and welfare clientele. Asheville’s calls for service then averaged 178 per 1000 people, the next closest contender in the state being Charlotte with 126.
To ensure coverage with reasonable response times, the department continues to hire firefighters, posting ads as recently as this June. The city continues to work toward maintaining competitive pay packages, and now offers its firefighters a starting salary of $32,307 with a healthy insurance package and other perquisites like twelve days of annual leave, twelve sick days, and eleven holidays.
The city has long been trying to build new fire stations to improve response times and thus lower insurance rates for citizens. Plans to build a station at the Asheville Regional Airport were scuttled in 2014 when the state legislature’s threats to hand the airport over to a regional governing board would have rendered any fire station yet another forfeited asset. The latest project, on Broadway, is advancing to the design stage. Land was purchased for $529,975 out of the budgeted $3,383,400. Construction is funded out of the city’s capital improvement budget, but the fire department will have to pick up an estimated $750,000 for payroll, plus unspecified maintenance and equipment costs.
That the department was having issues with overtime was evident as far back as 2012, when Chief Scott Burnette introduced members of council’s Public Safety Committee to FEMA’s Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) program. The city had tried a number of times unsuccessfully to get these grants, and in March of this year, it submitted another request for $868,032 to hire nine new firefighters. The federal government would fully fund the positions in the first year, and then taper its share of funding down to zero over five years.
The first-quarter financial report covered expenditures only through September, so the wildfires had not yet begun raging. During another presentation before council, Burnette used the word “unprecedented” many times. This had been his twenty-second wildfire season, and he had seen nothing comparable. In Western North Carolina alone, 65,000 acres were affected, compared to hundreds in a typical year. Last year, eleven wildfires burnt less than 100 acres within the city limits. This year, forty-four damaged a comparable amount of land, Burnette attributing the prompt containment to the city’s competent firefighters. Burnette estimated AFR contributed 20,000 staff hours fighting twenty wildfires in surrounding regions.
In follow-up, Assistant City Manager Paul Fetherston said the fire department had been assisting other communities with hurricane as well as wildfire assistance this year. He said the city expected full reimbursement for these efforts, so there would be no further damage to the fire department’s budget. Mayor Esther Manheimer said she had responded to the legislative delegation’s inquiry into “what kind of relief” the city would like. The NC General Assembly met in special session to approve appropriating $200 million from its controversially large $1.6 billion rainy day fund toward disaster relief from wildfires as well as Hurricane Matthew.