Two fire department budgets ran deficits

The city has under budgeted its fire department in each of the last three years – a move that one councillor called “embarrassing.”

Fire Chief Ian Baikie said that in 2014 and 2015, two fire department funds ran deficits and are on pace to do so again this year.

The Fire Protection and Suppression Overtime account, which pays for career firefighters’ overtime in the event of an emergency callout and for sickness and vacation coverage, has been significantly under budgeted.

In 2014, city council allotted $83,576 to the account but the actual value rang in at $176,271.

In 2015, $93,606 was approved while the actual value was $193,064 and this year, council approved a budget of $93,606 and the projected actual value is $195,000.

The fire department’s Fire Technical Services Contracted Service, which primarily funds auxiliary firefighters’ training times, has also been running a deficit. In 2014, council budgeted $66,806 for that fund, with actual values coming in at $83,110 at year’s end.

In 2015, a $75,000 budget was approved, with actual values ending up at $108,913. And this year, $75,000 was approved for the fund, with projected actual values sitting at $105,000.

At Monday’s council meeting, those numbers were before council,  which was not pleased with what it was seeing.

“It’s rather embarrassing when I see that we’ve budgeted half the amount of our actual costs and we’ve done that consistently over the last four years on protection and suppression overtime,” Cornfield said. “I guess slap my own wrist and saying why didn’t we deal with this before. As far as I know, we were on target with our budget and this would show that we’re over, so something’s got to give.”

Mayor Andy Adams said the situation is troubling.

“I’m a little disappointed in this, in that respective councils were advised that the issues now being identified as additional costs of doing business would be accommodated within the existing budget and we are now being advised that they have not been doing this and they are being added to the operating base budget to a tune of $131,394,” Adams said. “That concerns me. I don’t know if there’s a lot we can do about it, but I was told that when these individual instances come up, that they would be accounted for in the existing budget.”

City Manager Deborah Sargent said the intent was to provide additional information to city council of a structural adjustment to the base budget, which will contain an increase to the fire department and be presented to council during December’s financial plan deliberations for consideration. Sargent said council will also be able to look at the entire budget for the fire department at that time.

“The reason we put these forward is this is characterized more as a structural deficit over the past four or five years,” Sargent said. “This has been continually a budget that has been exceeded every year.”

Baikie said the fund related to career staff overtime has been “significantly overspent in the previous three to five years” because of increasing entitlement costs.

“This overtime is incurred at straight time rates as a result of a letter of understanding related to maintaining a four-person duty engine at No.1 station,” Baikie said. “This straight time overtime, which maintains a four(-crew)-engine, permits crews to enter fire-involved buildings as per requirements of WorkSafeBC regulation.”

He said the entitlement increases driving the need for overtime coverage include an extra vacation day negotiated in 2009, the addition of the Family Day holiday, vacation entitlements increasing as the department’s staff, on average, have more years of service, and increased sick leaves associated with an aging work force.

The training fund for auxiliary firefighters has been overspent due to a number of factors, Baikie said.

One, is that the number of auxiliaries has risen from fewer than 40 in 2010 to 60.

Secondly, the average years of service has decreased from 10 years to five.

“At this time, 39 of 60 auxiliaries have five or less years of service,” Baikie said, adding that there is also a requirement for more training now than in the past. “Increasing standards and requirements for certification to be a firefighter (are) requiring more training hours per year to achieve and maintain certifications.”

In order to meet actual values for the two funds running deficits, city staff is suggesting council this year allocate $195,000 to the Fire Protection and Suppression Overtime fund (a $101,394 increase) and $105,000 to the Fire Technical and Services Contracted Services (a $30,000 increase).

Baikie stressed that those actual cost increases do not represent an increase in service levels.

“To maintain existing service levels in a changing environment, these costs are required,” he said.

“Staff have worked to manage costs within the overall fire department budget, but these two accounts persist year over year exceeding budget.

“A budget realignment is necessary to fund these necessary costs to maintain basic fire services levels in the community.”

Council will debate its 10-year Financial Plan in less than two weeks.

No decisions related to the 2017 budget, including a potential tax increase, will be made until council begins its financial planning meetings which are scheduled for Dec. 5 to 7 at City Hall.