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Upper Pine still sorting budget problems
4/19/2013 By: By Carole McWilliams
Falling assessed valuation is a major part of Upper Pine Fire District's current budget problems, but not the only thing.
At a special meeting on Friday, April 5, board members and department officials discussed lack of tracking and billing in 2010-11 for wildfire hazard mitigation on private land in the district, and for firefighters and trucks sent to non-local wildland fires.
“One-third to one-fourth of our budget troubles, having to get into operational money, came from wildland issues in 2011 and 2010,” Chief Bruce Evans told the board. “It’s a value-added service offered by the district that should be an enterprise (self-supporting) and not draw down from the rest of the organization.”
He reported that, “In 2011, there were no contracts for mitigation services or tracking of who paid.” Those expenses weren’t separated from general operating expenses, he said.
The seasonal mitigation crew is still completing the 2011 scope of work in Forest Lakes, he said. “The Deer Valley (east of Bayfield) 2011 scope of work is done, we hope. … We need to close out the 2011-12 work at Deer Valley.”
Board member John Beebe, who lives in Deer Valley, said, “We’ve had the money since 2011. The work wasn’t completed.”
Board member Mack Coker added, “The contractor didn’t do some of the work and counted on the snow to hide it.”
Evans said, “We’ll make that right. We won’t continue that relationship and will ask for some of that money back.” The district continues to seek grants for mitigation.
Now there’s a lot more tracking of private land mitigation, the grant funding source, and the contracts with the landowners, Evans said. “Everything after last July we have documentation.” Mitigation contracting isn’t using any of the district’s operating revenue from property taxes, he said.
He continued, “Forest Lakes is like Whack a Mole. We think we’re done and someone else pops up.”
Wildland fires are considered the district’s biggest hazard. If a big fire happens on private land, all the cost of fighting it falls on the district.
Wildland fires elsewhere are a revenue source for the district, when district crews and vehicles are sent to those fires. But lack of tracking and billing has been a problem there too.
“There was $110,000 of deployments that we never billed for” in 2011, Evans said. “Previous staff didn’t understand it, there was no standardization of rates, people were paid different rates. A lot (of reports) weren’t submitted correctly. In 2012 I think we had much better control over this.”
Around $800,000 was billed, and around $400,000 of that was profit to the district, that covered operations in January and February instead of dipping into a cash flow reserve, Evans said.
“There were a lot of shenanigans with single resource contracts,” he said, citing one person who was being deployed at the same time they were on workman’s comp.
“The perception was that mitigation and wildland was bleeding us, especially in 2010 and 2011,” Evans said. “I’m pretty confident in our process now as long as (administrative secretary) Lisa Eckert doesn’t get hit by a truck.”
Coker thanked Evans and district officials for what they’ve done with district management since 2011. “We thought we had a great model and a great system, but you guys have taken us to a new level. Thank you.”
The board continued discussion at their April 18 meeting of district budget shortfalls and the pending fall election to seek a property tax increase.
The gist of discussions at meetings on March 21 and April 5 was that the district isn’t able to pay for the current range of fire and emergency medical services with current property tax revenue, which has fallen as coalbed methane assessed valuations have fallen. That’s compounded by the tracking and billing issues in 2010 and 2011.
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