Grand Lake Fire OKs budget

The Grand Lake Fire board approved the department’s 2021 budget Wednesday night with the chief on paid administrative leave.

The board declined to discuss why Chief Kevin Ratzmann has been put on leave or any potential timetable for his return to the department. The move comes after the board and department staff spent the summer months working to get spending at Grand Lake Fire in order.

On Wednesday, board members expressed their satisfaction with next year’s anticipated budget, though board president David Craig emphasized the most important aspect for the department right now is to live within the perimeters established by the spending plan.

The board ran an analysis of department spending earlier this year that led Grand Lake Fire to install a hiring freeze and nix department overtime in July. On Wednesday, the board approved the 2021 budget, which will reflect a $935,000 end of year favorable outcome. This reflects a variance of $635,000 from the $1.57 million the department will begin the year with.

Craig said the amount of the variance will likely improve because, as next year progresses, revenues the department regularly receives but does not budget for annually — items like wildfire deployments, mitigation work within the district and short-term rental inspections — will almost certainly boost the department’s finances.

Explaining why the department doesn’t budget for that revenue, Craig said Grand Lake Fire has not included those items in the past and doesn’t plan on changing how it does the budget now. However, he acknowledged that “the odds” of achieving additional revenue from those items are “excellent,” and that money would of course create an even more favorable budget for the department.

“The board is very eyes wide open to rebuilding those starting fund balances, but we’ve had to invest pretty significantly in apparatus, personnel, responses to COVID-19 and PPE gear for the department,” Craig explained of the 2021 budget.

For firefighters and EMTs, PPE gear includes much more than masks. The department employees need full uniforms, helmets, jackets and pants, in addition to the masks, and Grand Lake Fire has stocked back up on those items. Many people might not know it, but that gear has an expiation date and needs to be regularly updated.

Other forces pushing hard on the department’s budget in 2020 were Grand Lake Fire’s efforts to fulfill a taxpayer-approved measure to expand the department into ambulance services, expenses tied to the COVID-19 response and replacing major pieces of department equipment that were decades old.

Craig added that with new reporting mechanisms installed at the department this year, the board can monitor spending every single month and respond proactively with followup action for the forthcoming month to make sure expenses stay on track.

While Chief Ratzmann was not present for Wednesday’s budget approval, board members were highly complimentary of those who took the reins — Assistant Chief Seth St. Germain and Administrative Manager Krystal Steward. Board members said their work on the 2021 budget was instrumental in crafting a good plan.

“Our critical mission is to be transparent and take care of the department,” Craig emphasized over the phone Thursday as he explained that the board is closely monitoring the department’s budget every month on a year to date basis.

He added that anyone is welcome to plug into the board meetings, which are being streamed via Zoom, with numerous chances for the public to ask questions and comment.

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