Port Angeles fire union leader fears staff cuts

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

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EDITOR'S NOTE — This story has been corrected from its original posting to rephrase the second paragraph.

PORT ANGELES — The president of the union representing Port Angeles' firefighters is concerned that a cut now included in the 2013 proposed city budget could lead to one less firefighter/paramedic position.

How the Port Angeles Fire Department would handle a funding cut has not been determined, and Fire Chief Ken Dubuc said he would do the best he can to avoid any layoffs in the the fire department.

“[The reduction] could be addressed by a number of different options,” Dubuc said.

Mike Sanders, president of Port Angeles' International Association of Fire Fighters Local 656 and a lieutenant with the city's fire department, has sent at least three letters to City Council members and City Manager Dan McKeen expressing concern over McKeen's recommendation to keep the department's assistant fire chief position vacant.

This position, the elimination of which McKeen said Thursday would mean about $110,000 savings in salary and benefits, was left vacant when McKeen was hired as city manager in April of this year and Dubuc — formerly assistant fire chief — took McKeen's place as fire chief.

The proposed fire department reduction is one of eight city staffing positions — two through layoffs and six by not filling vacant positions — eliminated under McKeen's proposed balanced 2013 budget.

McKeen has presented a budget with $18.7 million in the general fund.

The city's total operating budget is up nearly 4 percent, due mostly to increased electricity costs, with the amount set at $99.7 million amount for 2013.

The general fund fits inside the city's total operating budget, McKeen said.

The $99.7 million includes all the costs associated with the city's utilities, such as electricity, and is higher than last year to reflect the increase in utility rates City Council members approved in October, McKeen said.

The Port Angeles City Council will hold the first of three public hearings on the budget at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the City Council chambers, at 321 E. Fifth St.

After reviewing public comments, City Council members are expected to adopt the 2013 budget at their Dec. 4 meeting.

Sanders said he's worried that a funding reduction would force the elimination of one of two so-called “floating” paramedic positions, which are staffed by full-time personnel whose shifts are flexible to fill in while others are on vacation or on medical leave.

“We're just asking council to maintain what we have,” Sanders said. “Don't cut us.”

In his letters to city officials, Sanders said that the fire department has not grown from 24 people since Sanders joined 18 years ago, though annual calls for service rose from just more than 2,100 in 1994 to about 3,500 in 2012; a roughly 67 percent increase.

Dubuc said he understands Sanders' concerns about possible cuts to fire department funding but said he as chief is not yet in the position to determine how best to handle possible reductions.

Dubuc said leaving the assistant fire chief position vacant is one of multiple options he has, adding that handling this staff issue is akin to attempting to solve an algebra equation with more than one unknown.

“I have about 12 variables right now,” Dubuc said.

Though nothing has been set in stone, Dubuc said he will try his best to rearrange shift responsibilities within the department to avoiding laying off a firefighter/paramedic if Dubuc decides to fill the assistant chief position.

McKeen said Thursday the revenue collected from running the fire department, through the city's Medic I utility and ambulance service charges, are simply not keeping up with costs.

For example, McKeen said the city is anticipating increased ambulance costs through transporting patients living outside the city limit — meaning they do not pay the Medic I utility charge — who are not able to pay the ambulances charges in full.

Additionally, McKeen said the majority of the city's departments took a hit in funding in the 2013 budget, either in adjusted staffing levels, less funds for supplies and materials or both.

“There is not one department that received a reduction that didn't feel it affected their ability to provide their same level of service,” McKeen said.

The budget decisions made this year were tough, McKeen said, and are an example of the difficult choices that will need to be made if the economy does not recover in the upcoming years.

“There will be no department that will be unaffected by [budget adjustments] over the next few years,” McKeen said.

Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at jschwartz@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: November 05. 2012 3:07PM
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