New Year's Resolutions

 


  It's a new year…now what? A new year is upon us. At this time of year, people often contemplate lifestyle changes (lose weight, stop smoking, eat healthy), financial changes (invest for retirement, get out of debt, improve income) and even career changes (take the promotional exam...


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It's a new year…now what? A new year is upon us. At this time of year, people often contemplate lifestyle changes (lose weight, stop smoking, eat healthy), financial changes (invest for retirement, get out of debt, improve income) and even career changes (take the promotional exam, begin/complete secondary education, obtain a new certification). Somewhere deep inside, we like the idea of starting over, turning over a new leaf or, simply put, making changes. There seems to be something magical about "the new year" — something refreshing, inspiring; something that causes us to reflect on the events of the previous year and use those experiences to adjust course and make plans for the coming year.

The tradition of New Year's resolutions dates back to 153 B.C. with Janus, a mythical king of early Rome. With two faces, Janus could simultaneously see past and future events. Janus became a symbol for resolutions and was placed at the beginning of the Roman calendar year, hence January.

So what have we learned in 2010? What can we do to adjust course for 2011? What resolutions will you make?

Looking Back

No issue likely looms larger for 2010 than that of The Great Recession. Consumer confidence plunged to a record low, retail sales plummeted and unemployment rose, creating an immediate impact on municipal coffers. Many municipalities had no choice but to make cuts. These cuts quickly permeated to the fire departments, resulting in widespread destabilization. The overwhelming majority of most fire department budgets is allocated to personnel (a cost that rises annually), leaving little choice as to where these cuts were likely to come from. Layoffs were threatened and, in many cases, executed.

The recession of 2008–2009 was dubbed The Great Recession as it arguably exceeded every other recession on many economic indicators. This country and many of the municipalities therein have not experienced economic conditions like these since the 1930s. While many municipalities and fire departments had contingency plans for recessionary times, the magnitude far exceeded what those plans were designed to cover, leaving many fire departments reeling in uncharted economic waters and no place to turn for help.

Looking Forward

The worst may be yet to come from a budgetary standpoint. Property taxes don't usually decline until a reappraisal is done and time frames for these appraisals vary; however, according to the National League of Cities, municipal budgetary recessions often lag the general economy by 18 months to two years, making the second half of 2011 the trough for many fire departments.

Many government finance experts (if there ever were an oxymoron, this would have to be it) are talking about the "new normal." What is the "new normal," you might ask? Well, it implies that there may never be a complete recovery. It encourages leaders to recognize that current budgetary levels may be the "new normal." Lamentations of extended response times, too few personnel and increased risk in the community may not be enough to encourage voters to approve new taxes. Unless the funding issue is resolved, there will be an inability to return to things as they were and instead, we should focus on things as they are.

Efficiency will be a focus for correction. Municipal and fire service leaders will be looking for ways to improve output from the firefighters who are left. Ideas that just a few years ago may have seemed bizarre will now likely be investigated for merit. This is already happening. Many fire service leaders are questioning historic practices based on return on investment. The question seems simple: If I spend money here, will it improve the efficiency of my operations? If the answer is no, it is unlikely to be funded.

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