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Lockwood firefighters hope for best from voters
Lockwood Fire District engineer Allan Hutton, left, talks with Diana Geiger while going house to house to generate support for the mill levy on Tuesday's primary election ballot.

Allan Hutton, a Lockwood firefighter who is going door to door to drum up support for a fire levy, remains hopeful that voters will be willing to raise their taxes to maintain fire and ambulance services.

"We're relatively optimistic that this community is going to support us like they have in the past," said Hutton, president of the Lockwood Firefighters Union. "Our Fire Department is well respected in the community, and we're hoping that the public will help us out."

A proposal for a permanent increase in the district's levy will go before voters in Tuesday's primary election. The levy of about 25 mills would generate an additional $215,477 a year for fire district operations, raising the taxes on a house valued at $100,000 by $52.91 a year. The district's budget for 2006 is around $1 million.

"Honestly, the reception has been more positive than I had expected in light of the fact that a lot of mill levies haven't passed," said Keith Broyles, secretary-treasurer of the Lockwood Rural Fire District board. "We have tried to portray this with a positive image from the community service that we provide."

The fire district comprises 83 square miles and is home to at least 8,000 people, according to fire district officials. It's bordered on the east by Emerald Hills, on the west by the Yellowstone River bridge near MetraPark, on the south by Pictograph Caves State Park and on the north by the river. The ExxonMobil refinery, which has its own fire department, isn't included in the district.

Fire officials say the increase in taxes will help the district maintain services and rebuild cash reserves, which have dwindled. Revenues were short last fall, and the district borrowed money from Yellowstone County until its fall tax payments came in.

"This levy is to keep the services as they are," Hutton said. "We're not using them to buy new equipment or build a new station."

In March, the fire board cut expenses by more than $125,000 to bring its 2006 budget into balance. The cuts included wage and benefit concessions by the union firefighters and a pay cut for Fire Chief Alan Riley and the department's secretary. The board also sold some equipment.

Riley said the firefighters have kept a positive attitude and remain committed to providing the best possible service despite absorbing significant pay cuts.

Bill Cummins, president of the fire district board, said the cash shortfall resulted from the board's frugal approach to funding the district.

"We had been conservative with our mill levy over the years, and we didn't want to raise it," said Cummins, who has been on the board since it was formed in 1988.

Board members and firefighters date the cash crunch to 2000, when the fire district was ordered to repay $171,667 to the ExxonMobil refinery for property tax payments that had been mistakenly assessed. After the discrepancy was found, the fire district agreed to repay the money over 10 years, Cummins said.

Since then, the fire board has used reserves to help balance the budget. Board members had hoped that tax revenues generated by dozens of new houses and businesses within the district would generate enough tax revenue to balance the budget. But property tax revenues from new development haven't kept pace with expenses, Broyles said.

"The number of runs has gone up, and our overhead has gone up," Broyles said. "We had been expecting that new revenue would come in with an increase in new development. But there's a year lag, and our estimates were inaccurate."

Pat White, an accountant with Galusha, Higgins and Galusha, told county commissioners last fall that the fire district's tax revenues have increased by only about $12,000 over the previous five years despite a building boom. Meanwhile, salaries, insurance and other expenses have grown faster, he said.

Cummins said an increase in calls has contributed to the district's financial woes. In 2005, the department responded to 152 calls for advanced life support, compared with 122 in 2004, a 25 percent increase.

Some have suggested that Riley, who announced his retirement just weeks after the department announced the cutbacks, should have better managed the department's expenses. But Broyles and Cummins refused to pin the blame on the chief. The board is ultimately responsible for the budget, Broyles said.

Hutton also refused to point fingers.

"Instead of laying blame, we've been pressing forward, trying to right this situation," he said.

Cummins and Broyles also denied claims that the ambulance service has lost money for the district. The service has operated at a break-even point or has generated a profit since the program began. The department bought its first ambulance in 2001. The program has provided better service and quicker response times, Cummins said.

Hutton said he would rather not think about what could happen if the levy fails.

"I don't want to put a threat out to the community," he said. "But we would be very challenged to provide the services we do now."