Short staffing, rising workers compensation costs and broken-down engines are nothing new for the Sutter County Fire Department.
Fire Chief John Shalowitz first spoke about it with the Appeal-Democrat last summer. And last month, the Sutter County Grand Jury echoed those concerns in its annual report, calling the service area “dangerously understaffed and alarmingly underfunded.”
“One of the main things is that this report is a clear picture of, as stated, the dire straits the department is in,” Shalowitz said Wednesday. “We’re just continuing down that road.”
While the department recently reapplied for the federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant in hopes of funding six firefighters, that’s just a short-term fix. The grand jury recommended supervisors reassess the service area’s revenue stream and special fire tax by the end of the year. Other recommendations included the county forgiving the remaining balance of a loan to construct a fire station.
Grand jury members highlighted the fact that Sutter County Fire Department, County Service Area F (CSA-F) – a 254-square-mile unincorporated area located just north and south of Yuba City – is facing dire challenges due to shortfalls in revenue and staffing, in addition to aging and failing emergency vehicles.
The service area has been the subject of past grand jury reports over concerns of staffing, renovations and installation of safety equipment. The CSA-F was formed in 1996 when the Live Oak Fire Department, Oswald-Tudor Fire Department and the Sutter Fire Department were consolidated.
The grand jury found that a special fire tax for the district – one of three primary funding sources – was established in 1997 without an inflation index, resulting in the current situation where annual expenditures are surpassing recurring revenue. The average household pays an average of $40 a year.
Because of a lack of funding, staff levels have been compromised, resulting in safety risks for fire personnel and citizens, and volunteers are becoming harder and harder to find.
Firefighter injuries have also resulted in significant increases in workers compensation claims over recent years – costs in 2015 were $64,347 compared to the last fiscal year’s estimate of $275,171, or an increase of 328 percent. Shalowitz said Wednesday that those costs are projected to jump even higher for the 2019-20 fiscal year: up to $478,000 from $65,000 — more than a 600 percent increase.
“Nobody could recover from that,” he said.
The department is still looking for grants to cover equipment costs, and it’s currently working on selling an engine so it can buy a refurbished one that will cost about 50 percent less of what normal engines cost. Shalowitz is always on the lookout for grants, as well, but those aren’t guaranteed and don’t cover long-term staffing costs. He hopes to work with a consultant to do a fee study and figure out what type of tax measure would best address the department’s needs. It will need to be a fast-moving process because of the early election next year, and the department will host a series of town hall meetings to answer questions.
And he expects people won’t be happy about an increase in property and/or fire service taxes. But being already so far below industry standards and barely able to level the budget each year means Shalowitz isn’t sure what the alternatives are.
“There are a lot of things we’re entertaining to show the public we’re trying to do everything we can to be fiscally responsible, but in the same breath, we’re past that now,” he said. “I have to put it back to the public in some way to say, ‘what level of service do you want? What are you willing to pay for?”