Grand Lake Fire freezes spending as department battles budget blaze

Board also puts hold on hiring, overtime

The Grand Lake Fire department has frozen spending and hiring as the department looks to make up an anticipated operating deficit.
Robert Mendoza / Sky-Hi News

On Wednesday, Grand Lake firefighters and EMTs showed a courage not always associated with the profession.

They didn’t run to any burning buildings, unroll the fire hoses or douse any flames. Instead, a small group of them used their words as they fought for their salaries and their department amid a financial shortfall.

“The Grand Lake Fire Department has forecast a financial net operating deficit resulting from COVID operations, expenses and anticipated income shortfalls,” Board president David Craig told the audience after coming out of an executive session on Wednesday.

“The board and chief are working together to mitigate this through measureable and tangible initiatives,” he continued, adding that no payroll or labor reductions are anticipated at this time, but the department has immediately frozen hiring and spending and every effort will be made to eliminate overtime.

The board also directed Grand Lake Fire Chief Kevin Ratzmann to provide a reforecast of the 2020 budget that reflects the initiatives the board identified. The board offered no other comments before adjourning the meeting.

On Thursday, Ratzmann explained the shortfall as a combination of new purchases the department made to replace decades old equipment, Grand Lake Fire’s expansion into ambulance services, the timing in which the 2019 mill levy will kick in and the COVID-19 response, which Ratzmann hopes will be offset by some grant money.

Before the board’s decision, a small group of the firefighters and EMTs had pleaded with the board to carefully consider any potential cuts to salaries, which they feared would leave the department greatly reduced.

Coming into the meeting, some department employees had talked about agreeing to pay cuts up to 20% in an effort to try to save jobs at the department, Ratzmann said, adding that there never was a proposed salary cut on the table.

Explaining how the department’s finances came to light, Craig said the department implemented a business analysis focusing on revenue, labor and expenses.

“We took a look at that over a 10 year historical period, and we determined from doing that we were trending in a way we were not comfortable with,” Craig said of the board’s July 8 meeting.

At that point, the board set the special meeting Wednesday. Between the analysis and the special meeting, talk of budget issues spread through the department and that’s what led to some talk of salary cuts, Craig said.

“I don’t want people to think this department is anything but solvent,” Craig said over the phone Thursday. “We have substantial dollars in reserve that are for this purpose. We have implemented checks and balances to make sure that we can track these expenses going forward, and frankly, that’s how we discovered that we needed to take action now … I would hate to make this into a bigger issue than it is. I think this board is intently committed to making the right decisions on behalf of the community.”

Speaking during Wednesday’s public comments, one firefighter-EMT asked the board to consider him, the crew he works with and the safety of Grand Lake’s residents and guests as he appealed to the board not to cut their pay too drastically.

“Unfortunately, given the proposed budget cuts, I’m not sure I can remain a member of this department, which honestly breaks my heart personally,” he said.

Highlighting the training and experience of the firefighters and EMTs seated around him, the firefighter said he would sacrifice up to $15,000 in a year’s pay if his salary were sliced by a fifth, and it hurts him to think about him and his coworkers shouldering such a hit.

“I don’t believe that staffing cuts and layoffs are a proper way to offset the budget either,” he said before introducing the other men who work with him on his shift.

The firefighter-EMT expressed fears other trained professionals would be forced out as well, and the department’s losses would lead to unsafe staffing levels and a poor emergency response.

“Ultimately, I’d like you to consider the personal impacts of your decision tonight,” he told the board. “Your decision will not only impact myself and my crew, but it will also impact the safety of the community and potentially each one of your loved ones as well. Thank you.”

One board member asked the firefighter if he was speaking on behalf of the department personnel seated in the boardroom around him, most in uniform with their chairs spread six feet apart, but the young man replied that he was speaking only for himself.

After that a wildland coordinator and longtime member of the department talked about his passion and deep connections to the Grand Lake community while he asked for forward thinking and teamwork.

He said Grand Lake Fire got into tight finances as “a team,” and he thought the department should work together to fix the deficit. The department veteran with three decades of experience cautioned against finger pointing and said that he too would lose big if the department has to chop pay.

After three firefighters spoke , one of the board members commended their courage for speaking before the board and their superiors. On Thursday, Ratzmann said the firefighters all spoke on their own accords, and added that he too was proud of them for speaking out in the public forum.

After the public portion of Wednesday’s meeting, which lasted fewer than 30 minutes, the board entered the executive session to seek legal advice on financial issues. The board emerged from the closed portion of the meeting after more than 2.5 hours and issued a short update before adjourning.

On Thursday, Ratzmann and Craig both expressed confidence the department would solve the deficit without layoffs or pay cuts. Neither of them would put a number on the amount the department needs to save, saying that the situation is fluid and they don’t want to give residents a misperception.

“I am hesitant to list dollar figures because it’s a complicated thing to explain,” Craig said. “Like, I can talk about what the dollar figure looks like today. I can talk about what the dollar figure looks like forecasting until the end of the year. The issue is those figures are extremely fluid so I am reluctant to put a figure out there that people are going to latch on to and make an assessment about our department without knowing all the facts.”

He invited people to attend the department’s meetings.

In other business, board member Mindy Nelson expressed concerns about Grand Lake Fire deploying its two tenders out of the county. A water tender is a vehicle that can draw water from a river, lake or hydrant and take it to the scene of a fire.

As a result, the board agreed not to have the units deployed outside of the county. Ratzmann asked the board if he could put together guidelines for how the units might be deployed in the future, and the board agreed.

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