The cost of coverage: Fire district unveils 2013 budget

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

The Woodstock Fire District, which levies property taxes that fund the operations of the local fire department, has proposed a 2013 budget that would increase both spending and the tax levy by about 3 percent over last year’s levels.

Calculations by Woodstock Times, which differed slightly from those of the district, found that the approximately $1.25 million spending plan would raise total expenditures by 3.33 percent and the tax levy by 2.98 percent. A public hearing on the budget is scheduled to take place at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, October 16, at the Woodstock Fire Company No. 1 firehouse, 242 Tinker Street.

The budget is subject neither to voter approval nor modification by the Town Board. The spending plan is prepared by the five-member Board of Fire Commissioners (BFC) that governs the district and oversees the activities and finances of the fire department’s five companies. The district must adopt a final budget by November 4, but the BFC may do so at the close of the public hearing. The proposed budget can be viewed on the town’s and the district’s websites, woodstockny.org and woodstockfiredept.org, respectively.

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Judy Peters, the district’s secretary and treasurer, reported that the proposed budget complies with the state’s 2 percent cap on property tax increases; compliance is determined by a somewhat byzantine formula, devised by the state comptroller’s office, which allows for certain exclusions and takes into account such variables as a “tax base growth factor.”

In separate interviews on October 2 and 3, James Brunner, the chairman of the BFC; Stuart Rothkopf, a longtime member of Fire Company No. 2 and the volunteer administrator of the district’s Length of Service Award Program (LOSAP), a deferred-benefit retirement plan for volunteer firefighters; and Peters discussed details of the proposed budget. Property taxes totaling $1,224,183, up from $1,188,676 in the current year, would fund most of the budget’s expenditures of $1,245,083, with an anticipated $20,000 refund of expenses in 2012 providing the remaining revenue.

In addition to Brunner, the BFC’s members are Donald Allen, Peter Carberry, Trevor Paton, and Arthur Rose. The commissioners are elected to a term of five years each.

 

Compensation and benefits

The fire district comprises approximately 175 volunteer firefighters in the fire department and 18 paid employees, only one of whom (Lori Kay, the EMS coordinator, who is based at Company No. 5, known as the rescue squad) works full-time. The part-time employees include Peters, fire chief Michael Densen, 11 paramedics, two groundskeepers, a maintenance worker, and a purchasing clerk in the chief’s office. The 2013 budget proposes a 2 percent raise for the employees. The total appropriation for employee compensation (categorized as Personal Services) is $283,553, up from $276,293 in 2012.

Most district employees, including paramedics, said Brunner, earn an hourly wage in the neighborhood of $20. “Our salary base for paramedics is in the middle of the road,” he observed, noting that certification as a paramedic entails more than 2,000 hours of training, with the state reportedly considering an additional 45 hours. “It puts a strain on volunteers. You get burnout. It takes a big commitment from people,” said the BFC chairman.

Meanwhile, employee benefits, amounting to $275,310 — up $20,000, or 7.84 percent, from the current year — account for 22 percent of the total proposed budget. The cost of benefits has risen steadily in recent years, increasing 33 percent from 2010 to 2012, with a further hike of 7.84 percent proposed in the 2013 spending plan, which allocates $275,310 for benefits. Of that total, $160,000 (up $10,000 from the current year) is earmarked for the LOSAP plan for volunteers, as compared to a $43,110 contribution (up from $35,000 in 2012) for the paid employees’ participation in the New York State retirement system.

According to Rothkopf, who is a retired investment adviser, LOSAP took effect in Woodstock around 1991, following its approval by voters. The plan has achieved its purpose of serving as a recruitment and retention incentive for volunteer firefighters and, consequently, enabling Woodstock to avoid the more costly burden of a paid fire department, he said, deeming the plan “a major advantage to the town and the fire department.”

Brunner and Rothkopf explained the workings of Woodstock’s LOSAP plan as follows. As soon as they achieve active status, volunteer firefighters can earn retirement credits for tasks such as attending meetings, participating in drills and other training activities, and responding to service calls. The accumulation of 50 credits in a year qualifies the volunteer for one year of service under the terms of the plan.

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