The Hoquiam Fire Department has been experiencing budget woes for at least a year, with ambulance calls decreasing by 9 percent in 2013 and department revenue dropping 10 percent overall, according to city officials.
And it’s taken a toll on department personnel, with the city announcing earlier this week that it plans to lay off four firefighters.
City Administrator Brian Shay said the move could save the fire department about $165,000, without factoring in the overtime shifts that may become necessary with a smaller crew. The Hoquiam Fire Department will now operate with 19 firefighters and paramedics, including Chief Paul Dean.
Shay said it’s hard to determine a cause for the decrease in ambulance calls — which is the primary reason for the revenue shortfalls. The city’s ambulance fund borrowed $100,000 from the city’s general fund to balance the 2014 budget.
“I think the economy might have something to do with it,” Shay said. “I think there are less people living in Hoquiam.”
Both Shay and Finance Director Mike Folkers said they had hoped that ambulance calls would return to normal numbers this year and save the fire department from personnel cuts, but that wasn’t the case.
“We had hoped that 2013 was an anomaly and that calls for service would pick up in 2014 and return to 2012 levels. But they have continued to decline even further,” Folkers said.
The department has also been completing fewer out-of-town ambulance transfers in recent weeks, Shay said. When crews make transfers to and from areas out of Hoquiam’s usual service area, the department must call in an off-duty firefighter or paramedic to work overtime.
During the past eight weeks, firefighters and paramedics refused to come in and cover 46 consecutive out-of-town transfers, Shay said.
“One of the things we do to make the city money is the out-of-town transfers, and just in the past eight weeks we were down $20,000 in net revenue,” Shay said.
This most recent loss in revenue didn’t cause the layoffs, but it certainly didn’t help, Shay said.
Doug Stankavich, president of the Hoquiam Firefighters Union, declined to comment for this story.
The city is missing another revenue stream after terminating a contract with Fire District 8, serving Moclips and Pacific Beach, in late March. Unbeknownst to the city, the district had added a clause to the contract that would have exempted it from making payments for certain ambulance calls.
Hoquiam officials called the addition fraudulent and ended ambulance service to the area. The decision may have cost the city about $40,000 in revenue from the district, Shay said, but the budget impacts haven’t been felt yet.
The layoffs come in the wake of an announcement from the city and fire departments in Hoquiam and Aberdeen that a merger of the two departments is being considered. Shay said the move could have saved the four firefighter jobs had it happened sooner.
“But these things can take a while, and we didn’t have time to wait for the merger with Aberdeen,” Shay said.
The layoffs will affect the four firefighters with the least seniority, said Shay. They’ll continue to work for the next 30 days, but after that they’ll be out of work.
“These people we are laying off, they are excellent firefighters. They are dedicated to serving and protecting the people of Hoquiam,” said Chief Dean.
Hoquiam Mayor Jack Durney called the layoffs regrettable, but necessary.
“These layoffs of our youngest is painful,” Durney said. “We hired them and work with them every day. They define what kind of professional organization we wish to be and it is regrettable that the combination of your local economy, the reduction in calls for service and the reduction in medical reimbursements has caused this to be needed.”
The Hoquiam Fire Department will spend the next few weeks discussing how to make the department work most efficiently with fewer staff members, Shay said.
“We’ll need to figure out to do with this reduction,” Shay said. “Our focus remains on the safety of the community.”