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Last updated: Sun. Jan. 06, 2013 - 07:12 am EDT

Fire dept. facing budget crunch

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While it’s too soon to say what lies ahead, Fort Wayne Fire Chief Amy Biggs said she’s taking a realistic look at the future – and she’s concerned.

“I don’t like to create a panic or scare the public, but if we continue to lose money and can’t afford to hire more staff, we could be forced, at some point in time, to cut back stations,” Biggs said.

Although Biggs doesn’t expect immediate cuts to service, she’s expecting a continued squeeze on her already short-staffed department.

“We never want to compromise a firefighter’s safety, or the public’s safety,” Biggs said, “ … but we have to find a way to balance the needs of the department and the needs of the community. And we need a plan that’s fiscally fair to everyone.”

Firefighters work shifts of 24 hours on, 48 hours off and receive six vacation days a year, Biggs said. There are three shifts, with 105 to 106 people on the clock each day.

“We absolutely need to have 96 people per day to fill seats,” she said. “When we ride short, we compromise the safety of our personnel and the community.”

The last time the Fort Wayne Fire Department hired a new class of firefighters was in 2008.

City Council President Tom Smith, R-1st, said the council is aware of the problems facing the fire department and is taking steps to find a solution.

“At this point, there’s no clear answer except to say (all city departments) are going to take a hit. We’re aware of these problems, and we’re working like hell to solve them,” Smith said.

The council hopes to have a plan laid out by mid-year to help resolve some of the budgeting concerns as departments plan for 2014, he said.

Last fall, the council approved raises of about 2 percent for most city employees for this year, including firefighters. Officials estimate the salary increases will cost the city about $2 million a year.

Cutting back

Although the maximum number of city firefighters the department is allowed to have is 375, the department hasn’t had that many in several years, Biggs said.

“Through retirements, attrition and people choosing to resign, we’re down at the end of (2012) to 343,” she said.

In recent years, the fire department has cut back the number of fire investigators from seven to five, building inspectors from 10 to 7, and public education officials from three to two, Biggs said. In doing so, the department has increased the workload for the people in those positions and has had to sacrifice some of the programs related to fire prevention and awareness.

For example, she said, firefighters rarely visit schools to conduct and monitor fire drills, and safety education presentations at schools and with the public are limited.

“We just can’t commit the way we once did,” Biggs said.

Other areas have also suffered, including arson investigation that once had a team but now is limited to two or three individuals, she said. The cutbacks mean it takes longer to determine the cause of fires, and the longer it takes to get a lead, the less evidence there is available to solve the case, Biggs said.

Earlier this year, city auditors found that high-risk buildings – those holding 1,000 or more people, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, child-care centers and high rises – were not getting their required fire inspections because of a shortage of inspectors. That situation also led to a lack of emergency plans and fire drills for those buildings.

Limited budgets

The greatest challenge going forward is the same issue that’s held the department back in the past, Biggs said.

There’s no way to make money.

“The fire department doesn’t generate revenue. We don’t write tickets, we don’t have an income base. We’re just there when you call us,” she said.

Adding to the problem are the Indiana property tax caps that were amended into the Indiana Constitution in 2010, Biggs said. The caps limit property tax bills to 1 percent of the assessed value of homes, 2 percent for farms and rental properties and 3 percent for businesses.

“Those caps are saving people money at home on their taxes, but that’s our funding for the department that pays for what we do,” she said.

And although on paper it seems like the fire department’s budget has grown, what’s really happening is that the department budget now includes the costs for fire protection services – things like inspecting and maintaining hydrants and installing water pipes. These costs were not part of the fire budget until 2012, spokeswoman Stacey Fleming explained.

Thus, the slight increase in the budget from 2011 to 2012 and again from 2012 to 2013 is simply money given to the department to pay for those services, Fleming said.

City Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, said the city is considering options that include adding local option income taxes, the annexation of certain areas, tapping the city’s Legacy Fund money to help cover city costs or, as Biggs and others fear, the elimination or reduction of emergency services.

The department has set up mutual aid agreements with fire departments outside city limits to assist with major fires or disasters, Biggs said. Those situations happen about six times a year, she said, usually when there are storms, droughts or other weather-related emergencies.

“It’s effective in those situations, but it’s not something we can definitively rely on. They are also short staffed,” Biggs said.

Regardless of the funding troubles, Biggs said she’s impressed with her firefighting crews and said she’s proud of the work they are doing, even with fewer hands to do it with.

“For the most part, everyday people haven’t noticed an interruption in service,” she said. “That’s a testament again to my people out there who are doing their jobs and doing a great job.”

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