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Tremonton officials are looking at the possibility of spending $1 million or more to beef up staffing in the city’s fire department, which is being stretched thin as it experiences a rapid increase in the number of emergency calls it must respond to.

A new analysis by a Cache Valley-based consultant recommends spending $1.3 million to add new staff positions to the department and restructure it to rely less on volunteers.

To pay for it, officials say the city would have to raise its property tax rate, something it has not done in more than three decades.

To pay for the $1.3 million price tag, property taxes would have to be raised by approximately 84 percent for Tremonton residents and businesses, City Manager Shawn Warnke said. That would equate to an average increase of $279 annually per home, and $507 on average for businesses, he said.

“I anticipate if something like this was going to be implemented, it would take a property tax increase,” Warnke said.

He said there would likely be some cost savings in some areas that could bring the price tag down some, but a property tax hike would still be needed.

“I think we could get down around 1.1 million, but it still comes down to a 60 to 80 percent property tax increase,” he said.

Any increase in property taxes would have to go through a truth-in-taxation public hearing process.

Brian Potts, an accountant with Potts & Associates in Hyde Park, said he has been researching options for the department for the past six to eight months. Part of that research was conducting a survey of the department’s volunteer members, 80 percent of whom said they are maxed out on the time they have for the job with all the other obligations in their lives.

“There have been some challenges with recruiting in the fire department, with what’s happening in volunteer world,” said Potts, who is also a longtime volunteer EMT with the Smithfield Fire Department. “Then you have turnover and retirements, there’s an age issue going on. We’re looking at what’s best for citizens, public safety and the departments here.”

A CRITICAL SHORTAGE

The Tremonton Fire Department is being stretched thin – not by more fires, but more emergency calls that need to be answered.

Tremonton City’s population has swelled from 7,500 in 2010 to about 9,000 today. Couple that with an aging population of baby boomers, and it has resulted in a rapid rise in emergency responses in recent years.

Tremonton Fire Chief Steve Batis has been with the department for nearly 40 years, and has seen drastic changes in the number of calls it has to cover.

“We used to make 300 calls a year, and now we’re at 1,500,” Batis said. “Call volume is going to go up 20 percent a year.”

That has put a major strain on both staff and volunteers who have family obligations and plans, which they often end up missing because of the rise in demand for emergency services, he said.

“When my kids were growing up, I could always go to their dance revues or whatever,” he said. “Now the chances of not getting paged out are slim to none. Everybody would like to do more, but there’s just people who can’t do anymore.”

Warnke said emergency responses make up about 87 percent of the calls the fire department responded to last year, with fires accounting for only 12 percent.

The proposed funding would pay for a full-time chief, three full-time captains and six part-time firefighters, as well as another full-time officer for the police department. Volunteers would still be an important piece of the staffing puzzle, but could be relegated to more night and weekend shifts that they may not be available for, Potts said.

The police department is feeling the pressures associated with the city’s growth as well. Police Chief Kurt Fertig said the recent merging of the Tremonton and Garland departments has been very helpful, but the numbers show his department is still being stretched thin.

“We serve more population per officer than any other department in the county,” he said.

In Utah, he said that ratio is one officer for every 571 residents statewide. That’s below the national average of 588, but in Box Elder County, the number is 640, “and we’re more than 100 above that,” Fertig said. “In calls by officer, we take by far the most in the county.”

A MATTER OF FAIRNESS?

While there is a consensus in city leadership that something needs to be done to address the shortage, some city leaders are reluctant to raise property taxes, especially since the Tremonton Fire Department provides services to surrounding communities who under current state law do not have to share the cost burden. The county and towns like Elwood pay the county a per-household fee every year under a contract, but that wouldn’t be factored into a Tremonton property tax hike.

While the majority of emergency responses are within city limits, 28 percent of them last year were to communities outside Tremonton, or in unincorporated areas of the county.

Tremonton holds the license for ambulance services in the northern Box Elder area, so it’s obligated to respond to calls throughout the area, even though those outside of Tremonton don’t contribute to the departments’ coffers and wouldn’t feel the sting of a large tax increase.

“The people we have these contracts with are not carrying the expense,” Tremonton City Councilmember Bret Rohde said. “The citizens of Tremonton are carrying this expense.”

Now is not the time for a tax increase, especially since the county increased taxes last year, Councilmember Lyle Vance said.

“My taxes went up 60 percent last year because of what the county did,” Vance said. “If we do this to our constituents now, it’s bad timing.”

The Utah Legislature was considering a bill in the recently ended session that would have classified fire and EMS as “essential services,” meaning they would have to provide those services for themselves if Tremonton decided it didn’t want to anymore. But that legislation was tabled after lawmakers determined more discussion and research was needed on the subject, Potts said.

Councilmember Connie Archibald said the safety needs to be the city’s No. 1 priority, even if it means residents have to pay more. She also said it’s important for the firefighters themselves to be on board with any changes.

“I need buy-in from the individuals who are providing that service in our community,” she said. “Our community values their opinions. We all want to be safe, so we have to spend money to make it a safe community.”

Warnke said property tax is a good funding mechanism for public safety because personal property and public safety are tied together.

“As it relates to public policy, having a connection between the tax and the service and the rationale behind it, I think goes a long way to help get it to be more palatable or acceptable,” he said. “There is a correlation between public safety and property tax, whether it’s crimes against property or the fire department protecting property. Property tax is an ongoing revenue source, so it’s a good match for the ongoing expense of increasing personnel costs.”

The city’s fire fund has about $800,000 currently, but that fund is earmarked for capital expenses like fire station improvements, he said.

“That’s one-time money, so we don’t want to fund ongoing operations with it.”

WHERE DO VOLUNTEERS FIT IN?

The fire department has always relied on volunteers, and many of them have been with the city for decades. Shifting away from volunteers may be necessary to some extent, but some are worried about the loss of institutional knowledge from all of the experience they bring to the table as more of them shift away from the work due to busy schedules.

“My concern is we have some really well-trained people that we don’t want to put out to pasture,” Mayor Roger Fridal said. “Somehow we have to keep the volunteer fire department we have, and allow them to work as much as they want. They’ve worked years and years to become qualified.”

Potts said there are many options available to help keep volunteers on board, “and we can work through those different models.

“It’s going to cause change,” he said. “It’s the desire for them to still be in the game and help as much as they can and work as much as they can.”

MOVING FORWARD

There are some other ways to increase efficiency and potentially ease the burden, such as implementing a rapid response team on the police force that would receive medical training for emergency responses in exchange for a raise.

Rather than fund the department expansion all once, some favor looking at taking incremental steps so the tax burden isn’t dumped on city residents all at once.

“How about we come up with a plan giving us some choices, something to think about, a lesser plan, and come in a little gradually,” Fridal said.

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