by Janet Spangenberg
There was a day in America when the “Volunteer Fire Department” was part of the fabric of our culture. That model is quickly becoming obsolete, no longer sustaining itself financially to provide the best safety for its people. Edgewater knows this only too well, as the town’s fire department reached the end of its viability. After a nationwide search, City officials hired Chief Mark Finnochio to consider alternatives in providing adequate fire safety to Edgewater.
There was no question Edgewater needed to raise its 5.03 mill levy, in one form or another, and wanted the best bang for its buck. The options were: seek inclusion with the Wheat Ridge Fire Protection District and match their 7.5 mill levy; go with West Metro Fire District with nearly a 12.4 mill levy; revive the Edgewater Fire Department by an even higher levy, but with less services than the other two. As research progressed, the ratio of cost to services made inclusion with the Wheat Ridge Fire Protection District appealing. Discussions between Chief Finnochio and WRFPD’s Chief Gillespie were promising.
In 2010, WRFPD began making the transition from a volunteer service model into a combination volunteer/paid staff model in anticipation of new revenues that would start arriving in 2011. WRFPD voters approved a mill levy increase from 3.7 to 7.5, doubling their revenue from about $1 million to over $2 million per year. This would allow them to hire paid staff and still have funds for capital improvements (fire stations and equipment). As an added bonus, the District began receiving installments of one-time revenue totaling nearly $2.3 million, including a SAFER grant that would more than cover their budgeted staff expenses for the next couple of years.
They also sought ways to raise the level of fire safety within the District. In an effort to improve response time regarding non-emergency medical transport, they purchased an ambulance with the expectation to provide this service by the beginning of 2012. Not only would they save money taking this in-house, but it could become a revenue generator by contracting with other fire districts. There was also a gaping hole regarding response time of fire engines to the east side of the District. With only two fire stations, one centrally located and one at the west end of the District, this left eastern Wheat Ridge, Mountain View and Lakeside at greater risk, as it was too far for the District’s engines to reach a fire there within six minutes. The strategic location of Edgewater’s Fire Station made inclusion equally appealing to WRFPD.
There was an issue to work out, however. The Edgewater Fire Station was owned by the City; WRFPD didn’t have a budget for purchasing it. It had also been built as a “temporary” facility over forty years ago. The building wouldn’t be able to accommodate the operations model the District was striving for. As discussions between Edgewater and WRFPD progressed into a possible contract, it was agreed that within five years after inclusion, the District would build a new fire station at another location in Edgewater. In the meantime, Edgewater would lease their “temporary” station to the District for $1 per year, saving them the immediate cost of acquisition, and allowing time to work the new station into their budget.
After lengthy discussions between Edgewater, the Wheat Ridge Fire Protection District, and many citizens at community meetings, there was a solid plan toward top level service with no expectations of another increase in the mill levy for years to come. In 2012, the people of Edgewater voted 2:1 to dissolve the town fire department, raise the tax levy by 2.47 mills, and include the City within the WRFPD’s boundaries.
2012 was a great year for the Wheat Ridge Fire Protection District. Revenues were $3.5 million compared to $1.6 in 2010. The doubled revenue from their mill levy increase was streaming in, and the SAFER grant was still going strong. New hires were in place. Levels of safety services were rising, and the gaping hole in safety response to the east side was about to be plugged with the addition of their third fire station. On, December 31st, 2012, the Edgewater Fire Department blazed its sirens for The Last Blast, as it rang in the New Year as part of the Wheat Ridge Fire Protection District.
The foundations of the District began to crumble in 2013, within weeks of Edgewater’s inclusion. The non-emergency transport service never got off the ground. The $80,000 ambulance sat quietly in the parking lot while the District continued to pay for outside services. Trouble was brewing between Chief Gillespie and others, and was about to boil over.
At a March 14 Board Study Session, Chief Gillespie threatened to file suit against one of the board members, who resigned within days afterward. Then he called for “preliminary discussions” with the Board about a future mill levy increase. A week later, the March 20 meeting began with a moment of silence for another board member who passed away only hours earlier. In August, the Board in executive session, discussed the possible need for a “forensic audit.” Just over one week later, three out of four top chiefs under Gillespie submitted their resignations en masse. The very next week, on September 11, 2013, Gillespie submits a “request for separation from the Chief,” and was placed on paid administrative leave. The September 19 headline for the Denver Post YourHub section read: Wheat Ridge Fire Chief Resigns to Forestall Investigation.
From the ranks, the Board immediately appointed Bob Olme as Acting Fire Chief. During the October Board Meetings, Acting Chief Olme states the District is operating in a deficit and is in dire financial shape. During the following weeks, Olme assembles a “Blue Ribbon Panel,” made up of five citizens “to study the ramifications involved with a consolidation” with “another fire agency/agencies in the area” and to “function as a gauge for the citizens of the District regarding such subjects as a potential mill levy, or merger.” The panel met several times in December with some urgency to research, study, and prepare their results and recommendations for the next District Board meeting, January 15, 2014.
The Blue Ribbon Panel report included three possible scenarios: Prepare for merging with another fire district; keep the WRFPD intact; keep the status quo/do nothing, which the panel felt obliged to include, but agreed this was not really an option. The first recommendation was to hire a financial consultant to analyze the long term financial needs of the District. Based on that outcome, the District could be armed with the knowledge of how much was needed to raise the mill levy, and whether it was better to merge with another fire district. Acting Chief Olme said the West Metro Fire District is open to talking.
Included in the the second recommendation, if the WRFPD wanted to remain intact, the financial consultant would review the District’s accounting procedures and financial documents beginning in 2010 to the present. The broad picture would be considered for the short and long term, including levels of service, capital improvement needs/funding sources, and a reserve/investment policy. An organizational consultant was also recommended to, among other things, make a complete assessment of the organization, and assist the Board in acquiring the requirements to sustain the WRFPD not only fiscally, but more importantly from a structural and leadership perspective.
It was noted that the voting population of Edgewater would be even more scrutinous of the District’s financial management than they were in 2012. They weren’t likely to vote for a mill increase unless they knew steps had been taken to change the “old” way of managing the business end. Utilizing organizational and financial consultants to review past and current procedures might help restore some confidence. Meanwhile, Acting Chief Olme was diligently searching for a bank willing to loan the District funds to cover upcoming expenses, including the February payroll, until the next round of property tax begins to arrive in March.
So, what happened to all that money? Remember the SAFER grant? There were strings attached upon accepting it. The money needed to be spent solely on staff expenses, and it needed to be used within a two year period. The District followed those required guidelines. By hiring additional staff and turning more volunteers into paid “career” firefighters, they increased their payroll to use all that grant money. When the grant ran out, there was no plan in place to continue supporting the inflated budget. This accounts for a pretty big chunk, though certainly not all.
During the January 29, 2014 Special Session, Olme said he found a bank willing to offer a $250,000 loan. “Acting” Fire Chief Olme was made Fire Chief and Budget Officer. The Board and attorneys reached a temporary agreement regarding Gillespie’s severance contract so they could settle out of court. The Board went on to discuss how much of a mill levy increase they should seek in May. Members of the audience expressed concern as to why there had been no consideration regarding the findings and recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Panel. Additional concern was expressed about raising the mill levy without simultaneously addressing the organizational and financial management of the proposed new funds. The Board decided to consider the Panel’s report at a Special Session in February.
At the February 5 Special Session, the Board rejected the Panel’s recommendation of hiring financial or organizational consultants to review current/past procedures and develop plans for immediate/future needs. They said they just couldn’t afford it. They would decide at the next meeting on how much of an increase to seek in the May election, based on the information at hand. They expected it would be in the 4-5 mill range, making it similar to West Metro’s current 12.382 mill levy. A member of the audience asked what the advantage is, in terms of services, to keeping the smaller Fire Districts intact, over merging with a larger District, like West Metro. Chief Olme answered that West Metro District has more expansive services.
So where does all this leave us?
There’s an election this May that includes voting for 3 seats of the five member Board of the Wheat Ridge Fire Protection District. All owners of property within the District are eligible to vote (whether a resident or not). An increase in the mill levy will also be on the ballot, the exact amount should be determined at the February 19 WRFPD Regular Board Meeting.
The District needs Board members who can make the tough decisions based on the existing and anticipated needs of the citizenry. It needs people who value seeing the big picture, being proactive, and willing to ask questions and learn new ways. If this sounds like you or someone you know, consider running for the Board of the Wheat Ridge Fire Protection District.
To become a nominee, fill out the self-nomination form, get it notarized, and turn it in to Barbara Sferra in the administrative office at the 3880 Upham Street Fire Station by February 28, 2014. Regular WRFPD Board meetings are held the third Wednesday of the month at 6:00 PM, with occasional special meetings on other days during time of need. For more information, call the WRFPD Administrative Office at 303-403-5900.
Janet Spangenberg is a resident of Edgewater and
of the Wheat Ridge Fire Protection District.