No easy fix for SW Polk Fire’s budget woes

SW Polk Fire's budget woes.

Credit: Graphic by KATHY HUGGINS/Itemizer-Observer
SW Polk Fire's budget woes.

POLK COUNTY — For at least nine years, Southwest Polk Rural Fire Protection District has spent more money than it has levied in taxes.

Not because of frivolous spending, said SW Polk’s Fire Chief Fred Hertel — also Dallas Fire & EMS’ chief — but rather the cost of doing business has simply overwhelmed the district’s tax rate.

Measures 47 and 50, passed by voters in the late 1990s, attempted to rein in government spending by rolling back tax rates to 1993 levels.

Tax rates were then limited a 3 percent growth annually. With little or no development happening, the district has been existing on 3 percent increases in taxes while expenses have grown fast, Hertel said.

It’s gotten to the point where SW Polk will burn through its reserves and have to cut already “barebones” services without reducing expenditures through consolidation or finding another source of revenue, Hertel said.

Hertel took over as chief in Dallas and SW Polk in late 2013. It took him several months before he could evaluate SW Polk’s financial standing, but when he did, he knew it wouldn’t be long before the agency was in trouble.

About a year ago, Hertel broke the news to SW Polk’s board.

“I think they knew they had a financial issue,” he said. “I think they were surprised as to how far or how in depth it had grown.”

Hertel has been doing his best to cut expenses — for example selling two fire engines and replacing them with one — but that will only go so far. Soon the agency will have to consider consolidation with other departments or putting a bond or levy on the ballot. Both would have to be approved by voters.

“I think I can keep this budget and this service level afloat for another year or two by continuing to make small cuts in expenses and taking full advantage of resources we have,” Hertel said. “After that, it will be cutting services until we can get one of those passed.”

For several months, the board has been gathering information about consolidation and bonds or levies to decide which would be the best choice.

“I’ve got them educated as to where we are at, and we are trying figure out what the next step is,” Hertel said. “It boils down to very limited options.”

SW Polk’s financial standing doesn’t just impact the approximately 15,000 people living in its coverage area, including Rickreall and the areas outside Dallas and Falls City. The cities of Dallas and Falls City would be affected too, as the agency has service contracts with both, to the tune of $248,000 and $30,000, respectively. The Dallas contract pays for administrative services and assistance with emergency calls.

“If we lose that money coming into the city of Dallas, the citizens of Dallas would have to make that up, or we would have to cut services in the city of Dallas equivalent to that amount of money,” Hertel said. “It’s not just a SW Polk issue.”

In the 2014-15 budget, the agency had $75,000 in reserve to begin the year collected $413,912 in taxes versus $538,862 in expenses, illustrating the problem that has been brewing for years, even with lean fiscal management, Hertel said.

“It’s very conservatively operated and it has been forever,” Hertel said. “They are proud of that, the board is, and I think that is a great history to have, but it is not sustainable in the future.”

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