City of Bridgeport contemplates paid fire department

By Racey Burden | Published Saturday, December 2, 2017
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Bridgeport City Council met Thursday to discuss the future of the fire department, including eventual plans to transition from a volunteer department to paid – when the city can afford it.

“Our hands are tied in a lot of ways because of finances,” City Manager Jesica McEachern told the council.

The city’s fire department, headed by Chief Terry Long, who also attended the meeting, is 100 percent volunteer. The city considered moving to a paid department years ago, even going so far as to have an architect draw plans for a new fire station, but the plans never went anywhere. The city is currently in the process of applying for a $1 million grant from the General Land Office to build a new fire station, but the current plans don’t have sleeping quarters for paid firefighters.

McEachern told the council Thursday that to build a fire station with sleeping accommodations would cost $3 to $3.5 million, the operations of a paid department would cost $300,000 annually and personnel salaries for 12 firefighters (four per shift), a chief and an assistant chief would cost $1.3 million annually.

The volunteer fire department currently operates on a yearly budget of $125,000 from the city and around $50,000 from the county for coverage outside of city limits.

“We are giving them just enough to be able to operate the fire department and no more,” McEachern said.

McEachern also laid out two other options for the council to consider: a mostly career department, similar to Decatur’s, with two paid officers and three paid firefighters and one volunteer per shift; and a mostly volunteer department with two paid officers and at least one paid firefighter per shift. Rhome currently operates on a similar structure, having appointed a part-time, paid chief this week.

For a mostly career department, the city would still have to build a new fire station and pay roughly $250,000 in operations annually and $1.05 million for personnel. A mostly volunteer department was estimated to cost $350,000 for personnel and $200,000 for operations per year.

Councilman Kevin Lopez, who works as a professional firefighter in Arlington, asked if the city had considered looking at how Eagle Mountain’s is structured. That department has full-time chiefs and pays professional firefighters from other departments to take shifts on their off days. McEachern said the city could look into it.

“Is there any point in talking about this?” council member Jimmy Meyers asked. “We’re so far from having money.”

McEachern said it was worth discussing as the city will have to transition to a paid department in the future and needed to build an action plan to prepare for that transition.

“There’s nobody arguing that we don’t need it, and it’s great, but we don’t have any money,” Meyers reiterated. “If you want it, you’ll have to put it to a vote.”

Some of the council members asked how Decatur paid for their professional fire department. McEachern said she’d discussed that with Decatur City Manager Brett Shannon, who told her the department was built up through sales tax revenue. That isn’t a feasible option for Bridgeport, as Decatur typically receives around $2 million more in sales tax revenue per year. Bridgeport’s sales tax revenue is also currently down 2.6 percent from last year.

Long added it took Decatur around a decade to build its department, and it started with only two paid officers and a part-time assistant.

To pay for a professional department with an increase in city property taxes is also not an option, as even raising the tax rate by 10 cents would only generate $360,000, less than a quarter of what the city would need to staff and operate a fully paid fire department.

“A tax raise would be massive, not even attainable,” McEachern said. “There’s no way within our budget right now to find that money. Throw sales tax out the window and know we don’t have that option.”

McEachern said she agreed with Meyers – the city’s best option would be to ask the citizens to vote for a bond in the May election, but even then the city might not be safe from going over its rollback tax rate.

She mentioned another option that would take control of the fire department away from the city – an Emergency Services District. ESDs tax everyone who receives department services, both inside and outside of the cities in a fire district. Boyd currently operates as an ESD. McEachern explained that an ESD would have to be voter initiated and voter approved, and it would raise taxes. If it was approved, the fire department would no longer belong to the city, and they’d have to decide whether to sell or lease their equipment to the ESD.

Long said an ESD would work best if every department in the county wanted to do it; otherwise boundary disputes could get messy.

Several council members also asked how funds from the county are distributed among departments. McEachern explained the county gives each of the 17 fire departments in Wise the same amount of money, regardless of district size, call volume or population.

“That isn’t fair,” councilman David Correll said.

Long said the county used to pay departments per call response, but some departments made up call numbers and that practice ended.

Council members decided to direct staff to create a plan of action for setting up a paid department, starting with looking at a bond for May and talking to the county and other departments about changing the county fund distribution process so that departments are paid by call volume or area. Lopez asked that the plan include hiring a chief by year two or three.

“If we wait around til the money gets here, we’ll be waiting forever,” Mayor Randy Singleton said.

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