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Vote pleases Lockwood fire officials
Union president Allan Hutton is an engineer for the Lockwood Fire Department.

People associated with Lockwood Fire Department heaved sighs of relief Tuesday night after voters supported a levy that will allow the department to continue operating without reducing services.

The 748-510 unofficial vote tally was a "huge relief," said Allan Hutton, president of the Lockwood Firefighters.

"We've got to say thanks," Hutton said. "We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the community, to the folks who got out and voted and voted positive for us."

Bill Cummins, president of the fire district's board, said the board and firefighters will be able to continue to provide services at the level citizens expect.

"It means we're going to be able to go forward and get ourselves back on our feet and operate with the level that we have at this time," Cummins said. "We will try and build our reserves back up and get back on sound financial footing."

The permanent increase in the district's levy will generate an additional $215,477 a year for fire district operations.

Without the funding, Cummins said, the board would have had to consider cutting services.

"It would have meant some drastic changes to the department and the type of services we provide," he said.

Instead, the board will meet at 7 p.m. today and begin work on approving a preliminary budget based on the current level of services. Cummins also wants to see the reserves built up.

"That's got to be our goal for the next, probably, three years," he said. "It's going to take that long before we're good and solid."

Hutton said the department will still strive for fiscal responsibility.

"I think we'll all be throwing ideas in the hat and coming up with ideas," Hutton said. "At least now we have something to work with."

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.

Hutton said firefighters didn't think twice about taking wage and benefit cuts to help meet the budget without layoffs.

"We're a family," he said. "Stepping up and taking pay cuts to save one, two, three or however many jobs was not something that was a tough decision for any of us to make."

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 part of the district.

"Our community has become accustomed to us and the high level of service we provide with limited manpower and limited equipment," Hutton said just after results were finalized. "They spoke very loudly tonight that they wanted to continue to have that level of service from us."

Neither Cummin nor Hutton held any ill feelings about the 510 no votes.

"Typically, nobody wants to raise their own taxes," Cummins said. "A tax increase is money out of their pockets and that's probably more why they voted that way than not supporting the department. I feel really good about the results."

Gazette Reporter Tom Howard contributed to this article.