Bloomfield to discuss firefighter funding

Joshua Kellogg
Engineer Ian Rutter goes through a check list Friday inside the cab of a fire engine at the Bloomfield Fire Department.

FARMINGTON – The Bloomfield Fire Department will be the main topic during the Bloomfield City Council’s special work session Monday as councilors discuss possible implementation of a gross receipts tax to maintain the current level of staffing while the city’s tax revenue is down about $400,000 for the year.

The council will hold a special work session at 5 p.m. on Monday in the council chambers to talk about holding a special election for residents to vote on an gross receipts tax increase of one-quarter of 1 percent to pay the salaries of seven of the 10 paid firefighters the city employs.

Fire Chief George Duncan said the proposed tax increase is the only option left to ensure that there are three firefighters on duty at all times to respond to emergencies.

“It is the only way it can happen to provide the service that is needed,” Duncan said.

The city has been paying for the firefighters since 2014 with a $1 million grant awarded from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant increased the number of paid firefighters in Bloomfield from three to 10.

Capt. Travis Olbert, center, talks with firefighters Ryan Varnell, left, and Tony Herrera during a safety meeting Friday at the Bloomfield Fire Department.

The increase in staff has led the fire department to decrease its average response time from 7 minutes, 8 seconds before the grant to 4 minutes, 44 seconds, according to Duncan.

Duncan said the number of volunteer firefighters is declining as the number of fire and emergency medical incidents continue to increase. The fire department has responded to an increasing number of incidents — from 542 calls in 2005 to 1,432 calls in 2015, according to Duncan. The largest annual increase in the last 11 years was from 788 calls in 2010 to 1,229 calls in 2011.

The fire department had 35 active volunteer firefighters in 2005, and that number dropped to 16 in 2015, according to Duncan.

Assistant Chief John Mohler said the decrease in response times has resulted in an increase in the number of structures that have been saved from destruction.

The tax increase is projected to generate about $570,000 annually. The cost to maintain the current staff of firefighters is about $450,000.

Councilor Curtis Lynch and city Finance Director Brad Ellsworth have expressed concern about a possible GRT increase because it would be the last increase the city could implement under state law, which caps the total amount of a municipality’s GRT rate. The proposed tax increase also could hamper efforts to pay for capital expenditures like replacing city vehicles, and repairing facilities like the water and sewer plant.

“We have a sewer plant that is old and in need of replacement, that we’re having to try and figure out how to pay for that in the future,” Ellsworth said.

The city is also experiencing a drop in projected tax revenue due, in part, to the decline in the oil and gas industry activity, Ellsworth said.

Bloomfield Fire Department Chief George Duncan, left, and Capt. Travis Olbert look over paperwork on March 4 before a safety meeting.

Ellsworth gave an update on the city’s budget during the Feb. 22 council meeting, where he informed councilors that gross receipts tax revenue is about $400,000 short of where the city was at this time in 2015. Revenues from GRT account for about 75 percent of the city’s budget.

“We budgeted for a $300,000 increase this year, and it’s not happening,” Ellsworth said.

The GRT total for the first eight months of the current fiscal year is about $4.52 million while the revenue total at this time last year was about $4.92 million, according to Ellsworth.

Ellsworth said the city has implemented a hiring freeze for the rest of the fiscal year and canceled all nonessential training and travel for employees.

“We are holding back, hoping our revenues don’t get worse,” Ellsworth said.

Firefighter Tony Herrera checks on a fire engine Friday at the Bloomfield Fire Department.

Lynch said the council will need to look at the city’s budget before making a decision regarding the special election, but he sees the need for the additional firefighters.

“I’m concerned about the economy, and I know the rest of (the councilors) are, too,” Lynch said.

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.