By JASON COX
Of the Keizertimes

Considering the expenses Keizer Fire District incurred in the past nine months, it could have been worse.

The district’s budget committee heard last week that it faces a $30,646 shortfall in this budget cycle, which Fire Chief Jeff Cowan proposes be filled using contingency monies. Several line items, most significantly legal fees, caused a budget runover totaling $302,300, but a combination of higher-than-expected ambulance fees and smaller cuts and spending deferrals throughout the agency led to the $30,646 figure. The district had budgeted $100,000 for contingency already.

The proposed revision sets the year’s expenditures at about $3.63 million.

Keizer Fire’s board will consider that budget amendment next month, and this month is set to discuss eliminating an equipment fund that the district was using more like a savings account, said Cowan. State auditors recommended closing it, he added.

“Everything’s on the up-and-up, but it’s a burden to continue to carry the fund,” Cowan said.

According to district figures, legal fees are the biggest single additional expense faced this year, with projections ranging as high as $318,000. A normal Keizer Fire District legal budget is about $20,000. Anticipating higher costs for the Clear Lake annexation election, the board last year budgeted $95,000.

Cowan believes the final legal figure will be less than $318,000, and cited the numerous legal challenges filed by Marion County Fire District No. 1 for the higher-than-expected figure.

Even with all those costs, that shortfall would only be about $100 if not for a blown head gasket and hydraulic system repair on a new ladder truck recently bought by the district from Salem Fire Department.

By the way, Keizer Fire has another ladder truck for sale if anyone’s interested. Cowan said the original asking price was $25,000, but they’re willing to take $10,000.

The district was able to cut mid-year expenses in several ways: Management and union staff agreed to operational changes that cut back on overtime, two staffers were out on medical and maternity leave, and several other budgeted expenses came in low.

Ambulance revenue is $89,000 more than the figure included in the district’s budget.

 

The long view

With its levy expiring in 2014, Cowan said the district should seek its renewal in November 2013. The district’s current levy is 35 cents per $1,000, with a permanent tax rate of $1.35.

In the meantime, he said, the district needed to communicate what preliminary long-range figures are showing: With no change in revenue or operations, what was a $173,851 cash carryover could turn into a $552,922 deficit in a few years. Cowan said staff will continue to present a balanced budget. That’s based on 2 percent annual rise in assessed home value, which budget committee member Bill Quinn noted wasn’t guaranteed.

Cowan noted the failure of the Clear Lake election and the public safety fee last November are contributing factors as well.

“We need to let people know there are shortcomings,” said Greg Frank, one of the board’s directors. “And it’s not because of anyone being inept, or stealing … there just isn’t enough money anymore.”