The first of three budget meetings with board trustees, who have pledged fiscal responsibility since April, began with scrutiny but ended with a hopeful outlook toward lessening costs.
Trustees will go over each line item of the proposed 2012 budget with district staff at the meetings, though about 80 percent of the budget goes toward salaries and benefits, while another 5 to 10 percent involves state costs, according to board president James Hickey. The remaining costs will be examined in meetings Hickey said were the first he knows of where reporters were invited.
“My whole plan for this budget is so we don’t have to lay off firefighters,” Hickey said. “And I want to give the biggest refund check back to our residential citizens.”
Acting Fire Chief Raymond Kay began Tuesday night’s meeting detailing how fire district managers were tasked with cutting costs from their initial 2012 budget proposals before the meetings, and the result was $1 million in cuts before proposals were given to the board.
But once talk shifted to the first of eight budget areas that would be discussed Tuesday night, trustee Blair Rhode voiced several criticisms about the financial decisions proposed, starting with basic fire clothing assigned to each firefighter. The proposed 2012 cost for basic gear – including a coat, pants and suspenders – was about $40,000 higher than what was spent last year.
“As of September 1, I took a 30 percent across the board pay cut,” Rhode said. “You guys do important things, and I do important things. We all have to come to terms with the fact the system’s broken. We have to save money. We have to decrease costs. All I see is 30 percent increase, 19 percent increase.”
Kay said costs for the gear had risen, and finance director Kerry Sullivan said she would research further why the proposed cost is higher than past years. Trustee Glenn Michalek said while serving as a firefighter, he went through two sets of gear in three years, after contaminants such as tar accumulated on the clothing while crawling on floors.
“I used the same gear for 14 years, but then went to a fire in Bedford Park after getting new gear, and left that fire covered in corn oil that couldn’t be cleaned,” Kay said after the meeting. “I had one set for 14 years, and then had to get a second set within a year’s time.”
By the meetings’ end, Hickey said he calculated about $174,000 more in costs compared to 2011 in the areas discussed Tuesday night: clothing, fire prevention, public education, IT, GIS, dispatch, communications and buildings and grounds. But $100,000 of that amount is tied to a federally-mandated radio narrowband requirement, which would be a one-time cost.
Hickey further pointed out that he believes about $500,000 of the costs proposed Tuesday could be covered by state and federal money. Lobbyist Cheryl Axley, , will be tasked with turning the ideas into reality.
“The past meetings were very quick, ‘see ya later,” Hickey said after the meeting. “Now we’re going line by line. Our firefighters are doing the best they can in cutting costs. We still have to tweak it, but I’m happy with what the firefighters proposed.”
Other suggestions offered during the meeting included looking for other vendors to host and maintain the district’s website, charging for workplace fire safety workshops and contracting dispatch services with other towns in need of communications.
The district’s 2011 budget included $29.5 million in revenue compared to $30.1 million in expenditures, while the 2010 budget included $28.1 million in revenue and $35 million in expenditures.
Trustee Martin McGill did not attend the meeting.
The next two budget meetings will take place at 5 p.m. the next two Tuesdays in the month, Oct. 11 and 18, at the district’s .