Threat or not? Proposition CARES supporters respond to critics
There is an issue on the Nov. 6 ballot for residents living in the Cottleville Fire Protection District which CFPD officials say will make the difference between cutting services in the district and making them better.
The issue was first on the April ballot, but the proposal drafted by a citizen-action committee failed by 300 votes. Now, CFPD Chief Rob Wylie is hoping with the issue again posed to voters at the Nov. 6 General Election, more voters will support the proposition.
Operating on a tax rate set 26 years ago does not provide enough funds to support the fire district, Wylie said. The last time the Cottleville Fire Protection District received a tax increase was 1986 — a time when the fire department answered about 400 calls a year and the cost for regular gasoline was $0.93 per gallon.
Wylie said he’s “cut the budget to the bone,” and he now believes expenses are just too high to continue to operate the fire district at full speed when the population of the area has risen 500 percent, emergency services to residents have grown by about 640 percent and calls increased to about 4,000 per year.
The tax increase — 27 cents per $100 of assessed property valuation — will fund a community-driven plan to by Citizens Advancing Responsible Emergency Services (CARES), who hope to ensure additional revenue that will preserve the current level of emergency services, provide up-to-date firefighter/EMT training, acquire additional firefighter/EMTs and allow the hiring of a full-time training officer to ensure training meets national standards. It will also provide other improvements to the district, while allowing a balanced budget, Wylie said. It will also create eight new jobs over a two- and three-year phase.
However some have seen the signs in front of the fire houses saying the fire houses may close temporarily or be short-staffed if the tax hike isn’t passed. And some are saying it’s nothing more than a threat.
“It’s a resident’s right to vote no, but I want to make sure they know the issue and know what they’re up against if this fails,” Wylie said. “There are no threats here. I think it’s my job to inform the citizens of what the ramifications are if we don’t have additional funding. If the voters say no, I work for the citizens and take direction form the citizens, but that direction is not going to be pretty if Proposition CARES fails.”
Wylie said without the tax increase, fire services will continue to fall and homeowners can likely expect homeowner insurance premiums to increase because of proximity and response time by firefighters is part of the premium calculations.
Wylie said he gets three to four calls a day supporting the initiative. He said those who disagree have been in the minority and generally have their facts twisted.
Steve McCoy, a businessman with a company located in Lake of the Ozarks, served on the Fire Board for one term. He has been a strong critic against additional funding. (See Letters to the editor in the Oct. 24 edition of MRN.) McCoy said he has been scouring over fire district audits and believes the district has been financially irresponsible.
“It’s the way the district is run,” McCoy said. “All the board members are chosen by the union and whenever you see anywhere in the county, the union buys all the signs and sends out mailers. We have a board that has been hand-chosen by the union. Over the years they have given them raises without any consideration of whether they’ll have the money to pay for them.”
Although the Cottleville Fire Protection District’s wage and benefit rates rank third lowest in the area for firefighter wages, just above the small communities of New Melle and Lake Saint Louis, McCoy says firefighters are paid too much, have too many district-paid health and pension benefits, and spend too much on training and equipment.
Wylie said firefighters working for the Cottleville Fire Protection District make about $67,000 in wages – not including paid health insurance – and receive 11 to 14 days vacation according to their length of service, contrary to McCoy’s allegations that they get 10 weeks of vacation. Captains in the district make $70,000, and that’s as high as they go, he said.
McCoy said firefighters turned down their 4 percent raise, but typically, the firefighters get 15 percent of their pay placed into their retirement account. They have a separate pension 10-cent pension tax (approved by voters in 1999 to fund the pension, separate of general revenue.)
Firefighters had been scheduled to take a 4 percent pay raise in January 2012, but declined the raise to help the district avoid a crash and burn situation, Wylie said. All other district employees were supposed to get a 2 percent pay raise as well, and they also decided not to take the pay hike, he said.
McCoy said each firefighter got a lump sum payment of $20,000 to put into their retirement fund. But all district officials staunchly disagree.
Firefighter Cory Hogan, a third-generation firefighter with the district and the department’s union shop steward representing Professional Firefighters of Eastern Missouri Local 2665, said he knows the budget like the back of his hand and can attest to the fact that cuts have gone as deep as possible.
“If I get a hole in my shirt, I can’t even go to the chief and ask for a new one,” Hogan said. “In July, the uniform budget was stripped. There are no funds for uniforms.”
Hogan says the district is currently looking at a $40,000 deficit, next year it will be worse and it goes on and on.
“My argument as a union rep is the $40,000 deficit is because the union and members are good stewards and because of all the cuts made to bring the deficit down,” Hogan said. “The training budget has about $75,000 in it, and you can’t train firefighters with that limited budget. The guys saved the district $125,000 in pay concessions.”
In addition, Hogan said, the community is being let down because overtime was slashed; overtime to inspect hydrants was slashed, overtime to do mapping to help efficiently find homes was slashed.
“There comes a point where service to this community requires more than volunteers,” Hogan said. “I live in Lake Saint Louis, and can’t stand that one of my fire stations is manned part-time. They only have enough funds to man one station full-time. If we close a station, the rating in the district would drop and homeowners would be faced with higher costs in insurance than they are in the tax. It also affects your home value because the further you are from a fire station the more your insurance costs.”
Hogan, an 8-year veteran of the Cottleville Fire Protection District, says what’s important to know is that in the past the boards and past chiefs come and go, and some decisions made in 2003 are still affecting us today.
In 2004, the district was $1.4 million in debt, but through cuts it was able to turn that around during those times of good growth and economy. We had a six-week capital in reserve, but in 2008 the bottom dropped out. That’s why we brought the April tax initiative, Wylie said.
“We bought four new fire trucks in 2003 under a different chief,” Hogan said. “Chief Wylie had nothing to do with that decision, and I agree that the purchases should have been staggered,” Hogan said. “Today, however, even after wage concessions, increasing our insurance co-pay and out of pocket expenses, we haven’t bought new breathing equipment and we are two or three generations behind the national standard. We have firefighters using equipment that are behind two or three requirements for what national standards should have on their face. Equipment outdated, we’re the only district in St. Charles County with no training officer.”
Last month, Wylie posted signs telling residents that failure of the 27 cents tax hike will mean closing some firehouses from time to time. He said the Department is running trucks with three firefighters rather than the federal standard of four per truck. He said equipment is outdated, the training budget has held the firefighters below federal standards.
“Our immediate plan is to try to run the District through brownouts, closing one of the District’s fire stations from time to time because staff is so short, we can’t man all the trucks if one of the 41 firefighters calls in sick. We have to look at the public’s safety and the firefighter’s safety. We’re hanging on by our fingernails,” Wylie said. “Look at the price of gas alone. When expenses outpace you’re your income, you have to cut where you can.”
A brown out for 12 hours means 4 or 5 minutes additional response time. Wylie said the district tracks response time through a GPS and a CAD system. Instead of a truck getting there in 2 to 3 minutes; it will be 4 or 5 minutes. A fire doubles in size every 60 seconds once it gets going. With a person, brain death occurs after 4 to 5 minutes.
In addition, a homeowner may see their insurance rise because of longer response time if a fire house near them is closed.
He said the tax increase was put on the ballot because the committee of citizens saw the need.
“We have made tough decisions. I cut two firefighter positions and one staff position, firefighters are paying increased deductibles on their insurance,” Wylie said. “We’re paying increased co-pays and pharmacy costs, and took a 4 percent pay concession. We’ve cut back on training, overtime and every category of the budget except for fuel in the trucks.
“Mr. McCoy disagrees with some of the things we do, and he translates that to immoral or illegal or unethical,” Wylie said. “McCoy served on the board for about two years, filling an unexpired term. He wouldn’t have been happy unless we had a 1967 fire truck and volunteer firefighters to run 4,900 calls a year. He wanted us to buy used computers for the district that houses important documents even after voters approved bond funding for capital purchases like computer equipment.”
Steve Mahler, a member of the CARES Committee, a group of residents who worked for nearly a year determining the fire district’s needs, said if opponents of Proposition CARES would have come to the community forums held throughout the past year, they would think twice about making accusations of overspending.
“The district hasn’t had an increase for 26 years,” Mahler said. “We have flattening revenues and increasing expenses. If (McCoy) thinks reducing expenses should be reducing the cost of firefighters by firing them or cutting their wages, that’s not how it works. It’s a labor intensive business, it’s a high-labor cost business. We did a study when we were doing (CARES) presentations last year, and when comparing firefighter wages in surrounding districts, we found Cottleville firefighters are right in line.”
Hogan says residents should know that the days of a high school graduate jumping on a truck and grabbing a hose are long over. He says nowadays, firefighters are required to have college degrees, hundreds of hours of training and many of the firefighters also serve as EMTs and paramedics.
“I would not, as a citizen, want to pick and choose which services I get,” Hogan said. “How much are you worth when your heart stops or you have difficulty breathing? This is a profession, and when it gets down to pay, we’re ranked fifth. The only two we’re above is New Melle andLakeSaint Louis.”
Hogan said the answer is not to lower firefighters to volunteer pay rates, not only because firefighting is the most dangerous job in the world, but because it’s a profession that takes firefighters away from their families for three 24-hour shifts and requires constant ongoing education.
“I have four years of college, my dad had an associate’s degree and not since my grandpa was a firefighter do you jump out of high school and jump onto a truck,” Hogan said. “I have to keep two or three certifications going to comply with national requirements. In Cottleville, we have 10 paramedics that have to renew their licenses every three years, but they require training and continuing education. A captain we just promoted has a masters’ degree in fire science.”
Mahler said it’s not right to expect firefighters to risk their lives because of substandard equipment. He says it has nothing to do with firefighter pay rates, because they are in line, if not lower than most districts.
Mahler said when some residents see a fire truck pull up they sometimes wonder why they’re getting a Cottleville truck. “The district covers 38-square-miles and provides mutual aid to Chesterfield, Monarch, O’Fallon, St. Peters and Central County,” he said. “If you look at this footprint on a map, it’s staggering.”