Cheney Free Press -

By JOHN McCALLUM
Editor 

Fanning firefighting capabilities

Cheney department's need of equipment and staffing have officials' attention in 2018

 

November 9, 2017

John McCallum

The resident firefighters' quarters at Cheney's fire station are shown above. City and fire department offiicials would like to spruce these accommodations up in order to attract college students interested in training to be a firefighter to the department's currently dormant program.

Cheney officials acknowledge there are large needs to be met when it comes to the city's fire department - and they hope to address those in the coming weeks and months.

Cheney resident Cliff Ferguson virtually accused Mayor Tom Trulove, City Council members and officials at the council's Oct. 10 meeting of ignoring department needs for equipment and personnel. In response, Trulove said the department will get a lot of its equipment needs met in the 2018 budget.

The council has approved a $750,00 – $800,000 purchase of a new attack engine, replacing the existing truck that has frequent mechanical issues. The city is paying for it with revenue from its 2015 levy lid lift and a state LOCAL low-interest, long-term payback loan for the balance.

It will take 8–10 months for the new truck to be delivered. As for other equipment needs, that will take additional measures - steps City Administrator Mark Schuller said they are working on.

The city applied for a grant earlier this year to purchase much needed replacement air packs, but Schuller said in an Oct. 19 interview they weren't successful in getting the money. The air packs expire in May, and Schuller said they will use levy lift funds to make purchases to replace them.

Also needing replacement are the department's personal protective equipment - also known as "turnouts." Schuller said those would be replaced using levy monies, buying a couple each year.

"But you put that all together, and it (levy) doesn't go very far," he added.

In 2015, Cheney voters approved a one-time lifting of the existing property tax levy from $2.40 per $1,000 of assessed property value to $3.10 per $1,000 in order to pay for public safety needs. That increase was estimated to bring in an additional $410,975 to the city's general fund in 2016.

Finance Director Cindy Niemeier said she budgeted $409,100 in levy lift funds for 2017. The funds don't arrive separately from the rest of property tax revenues, and Niemeier said she allocates 23 percent of the total funds as the levy lift portion. In 2016, that came to $381,700.

Through October, Cheney had received total general property tax of $1,055,640, with 23 percent of that amounting to $242,797.

"Property taxes have a low delinquency rate in Cheney, so it is safe to say we are receiving the $.70/$1,000 that was approved for the levy lift," she added.

Around $100,000 of that amount is already accounted for annually by the police department, who used it to hire a new officer in 2016. Over the past two years the city has been taking another $100,000 out for savings towards the new attack engine, and will use the $100,000 scheduled in 2018 towards its purchase as well.

The rest must meet a litany of needs not only from the fire department but also the police department. Schuller said those include a desire for another patrol officer, guns, Tasers and vehicles - with the latter now being purchased or leased.

The police department put off replacing its vehicles for several years, Schuller said, eventually leading to almost all needing replacement at the same time.

"We're trying to get to the point of (replacing) one per year," he added.

As for Ferguson's accusations about staffing in the fire department, Schuller agreed, particularly when it comes to volunteers and the department's residency program.

"Could we use a couple extra hands, absolutely," he said. "How we do that is the one million dollar question."

Both programs have eroded since former Fire Chief Mike Winters left in August 2016. Schuller said it's a department goal in 2018 to restore those and make them sustainable.

One of the challenges with the volunteer program is most people doing this type of volunteer work want some compensation. Spokane County Fire District 3 notes on its website that its staff consists of "approximately 120 paid on-call employees (volunteers)."

Schuller said they are proposing to budget $45,00 – $49,000 towards training and equipping fire volunteers in the 2018 budget.

The residency program has had as many as six firefighters, typically college students exchanging room and board at the fire station for their service. There are no residents currently, and part of the challenge is to make their living situation more attractive, Schuller said, through upgrades to the fire station.

The goal is to have four student resident-firefighters, one per shift. Schuller said that while different in form, there will likely be some move towards both the residency and volunteer programs being paid part-time.

"We're not sure what the situation will look like, likely a hybrid," he said. "It's one of our top priorities because we need more hands on deck."

More hands are coming somewhat with the full-time firefighters, who should be back to their compliment of nine once training is completed on a new hire and an existing employee. The city has also hired a new chief, Tom Jenkins, who is coming over from Fairchild Air Force Base later this month.

The department also has some discretionary medical purchases in the 2018 budget, since the bulk of its calls are medical assistance. But there's no money for more fulltime firefighters as the revenues just aren't there, Schuller added.

To help in this area, the city will continue to rely upon mutual aid agreements with other agencies.

"Mutual aid is critical across the West Plains, not just in Cheney," Schuller said. "I don't think any of our fire agencies can do it alone."

John McCallum can be reached at jmac@cheneyfreepress.com.

 

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