Budget includes money to hire 3 new firefighters
The proposal would gradually put an extra staffer in each firehouse.
By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
St. Petersburg Times
published May 30, 2003


SPRING HILL - The Spring Hill Fire Rescue District's budget for next year spends nearly $9-million, a sum that includes money to speed up a long-term plan to put more firefighters in each firehouse.

Fire commissioners, who received the proposal from Chief J.J. Morrison on Wednesday night, must approve a final budget by June 30. "There's no big surprises in here," said fire commission Chairman Jeffrey Hollander.

The budget is built on the assumption that Spring Hill's property tax revenues will grow by 5.5 percent. If the number is higher, as Morrison says he has been told by county officials to expect, there could be additional room in the budget.

This first "skeleton" draft of the budget is actually out of balance. It spends nearly $275,000 more than the $8.8-million the district is expected to take in.

But Morrison said that gap will disappear as the document is fine-tuned and firmer revenue estimates become available. If need be, the board can make cuts before June 30. "I think the district is in a very fiscally sound position," Morrison said.

As evidence, he points to the district's $1.4-million cash balance - equal to 16 percent of the district's budget. Morrison says the cushion is needed to pay the department's bills from Oct. 1 through December - the period that covers the start of the budget year to the time when tax revenues are mostly collected.

Overall, the highlight of the budget is the addition of three firefighters - a cost of nearly $99,000.

Currently, Spring Hill firehouses are staffed by four people per shift - two on a firetruck and two on an ambulance. Morrison says it is critical for the district to increase its staff so there are at least three people on each firetruck.

Doing so will make firefighting safer because it will put an additional set of eyes - not to mention hands - at each fire scene, Morrison said. "Our manpower is alarmingly low," he said.

Increased staffing also will reduce fire response times by making it possible for fire engines to remain in service when the two-person ambulance needs to draw a firefighter from the engine to assist in taking a critically ill patient to the hospital.

With vacations and off days, three people must be hired to ensure that a station has an extra firefighter around the clock.

Station 2, just off Deltona Boulevard near Forest Oaks Boulevard, will become the first five-person station sometime next month. By October, another station could be staffed with five people if the change in game plan does not have too adverse an effect on overtime costs.

Another key aspect of the budget is money to cover a 5.5 percent pay raise for firefighters, an increase called for in the final year of the firefighters' current three-year labor contract.

There are new costs that the district seems helpless to avoid:

The retirement plan will require an additional $140,000 next year - a 28 percent increase.

Health insurance costs will rise nearly $118,000, up about 16 percent.

Workers' compensation costs could rise as much as 50 percent, to $450,000.

And there are some costs that fire commissioners have chosen.

There is $55,000 for a new fire engine (which will be added to money set aside this year), $35,000 for a new sport utility vehicle for the assistant fire chief and $45,000 for a new training officer, a position fire commissioners approved Wednesday night.

Still, the additional costs - chosen or unavoidable - will not require new taxes, which can only be enacted with the permission of Spring Hill voters. The current rate stands at $2.75 for every $1,000 of nonexempt taxable property.

- Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com