Friday, March 1, 2024
March 1, 2024

Fire department tax hike coming

Budget met, board expects future increases to be smaller 

Taxes for fire protection will increase for 2023, although not by as much as last year — a trend officials expect will continue.

Salt Spring Island Fire Protection District (SSIFPD)’s budget will grow to require a taxation increase of 7.87 per cent in the coming year, down from last year’s 11 per cent increase but still “a large number,” according to board chair Rollie Cook.

The new budget is set at $4.6 million. District officials said 2023 is expected to be the final year of larger-than-normal increases, after which they anticipate returns to pre-2018-sized growth each year, around 2 per cent.

A big concern for the board, according to Cook, has been the rise in prices in the current inflation environment — costs for things like insurance, vehicle fuel and heating have all risen. And while those costs are concerning, SSIFPD’s chief administrative officer Rodney Dieleman pointed out that the budget was mostly dominated by the costs of wages and equipment.

“If you look at the pie chart, there’s really only two big pieces of pie here,” said Dieleman. “There’s a thin little piece for gasoline and utilities, but wages and equipment are the driving costs of the organization.”

Those wage costs are generally up, he added, in large part because of the department’s shift from a mostly volunteer force to a partially unionized, 24-7 protection program — increasing the number of paid positions on staff, as well as the hours they work. But going forward, he said, those changes are “baked in” for future budgeting.

“The news is kind of good,” said Dieleman. “That was the ‘hump’ we had to get past. That’s all built in now, so we don’t expect those kinds of big increases moving forward, only small annual increases.”

Fire chief Jamie Holmes agreed the financial picture was encouraging.

“We’re finally off our old ways of borrowing for an apparatus, and then having to pay it off over the next 20 years,” said Holmes. “We are now funding all of our apparatus purchases out of the reserve funds, rather than having to go back to the public again and ask for an additional bylaw for borrowing.”

The budget for the previous year was largely balanced and as expected, with only a modest surplus of roughly $43,000. 

“It wasn’t a big deviation from what we predicted,” said Dieleman. “It showed a good understanding of the market and environment.” 

The 2023 budget predicts wage increases in anticipation of a new contract with unionized members, and continues to set aside reserve funds for upcoming expenses, such as a new fire engine. Fire apparatus needs to be replaced on a 20-year schedule to maintain the department’s rating with Fire Underwriters Survey (FUS). 

In 2015, Salt Spring’s fire protection district was given two grading classifications: a Public Fire Protection Classification (PFPC) of 6 (out of 10, with Class 1 being the best grading possible) and a Dwelling Protection Grade (DPG) of 3 (out of 5, again with 1 being the highest grade). The PFPC rating is meant to reflect a program’s ability to prevent and control major fires, such as those that typically occur in multi-family or commercial/industrial settings. The DPG is an indication of the underwriters’ confidence in the program’s ability to handle fires in smaller buildings, such as single-family homes.

Better PFPC and DPG ratings suggest less risk for insurers — and, subsequently, lower insurance costs for property owners.

While much of the checklist of suggestions from that 2015 assessment has appeared in SSIFPD’s activities, including apparatus and fire hall replacement, there are some realities of living on an island that are difficult to overcome. Part of that, said Holmes, is maintaining a seemingly large fleet of vehicles. 

“Every other community that has mutual aid available can utilize neighbouring communities’ apparatus in their grading, if they can respond in X amount of time,” said Holmes. 

“For us to say that we have mutual aid with Pender doesn’t really count, because by the time they get on a ferry and come over here, the response time isn’t so great.”

Holmes said some apparatus older than the 20-year mark have been well-maintained, and are kept on reserve and made available to the province for wildfires — which brings revenue to Salt Spring if they are deployed. 

The department was scheduled for a FUS review in 2020, but that was postponed by the pandemic. A new review is expected within the next year. Holmes said funding has been set aside for additional water storage downtown, which is expected to help the FUS rating. 

In addition, he said the Fire Chiefs’ Association of BC is petitioning FUS to change apparatus certification to 25 years instead of 20, which would help the department’s funding models.

At its annual general meeting on Sept. 19, SSIFPD officially accepted its 2021 audited financial report. Cook pointed out that the auditor’s statement had no issues with the district’s financial statements.

“It’s a clean audit, about as good as it gets in this process,” he said. “We delivered a program on budget, with no major surprises, and the auditor was satisfied.”

During the annual general meeting, a member of the public responded to a call for a motion to fix monthly remuneration of the trustees. The motion as passed set that at $200 per trustee and $250 for the chair.

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