Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) The Missoula Fire Department on Wednesday kicked off the city's budgeting season, where the fate of the fire levy hangs heavy over the department's new fiscal year and how it approaches staffing and equipment.

And what the City Council will decide to fund on its own with existing revenue.

Chief Gordy Hughes said the department's $19 million budget goes primarily to personnel while the operating budget currently faces a funding shortage. The department is handling a growing number of calls and has struggled in recent years to meet targeted response times.

“As everyone knows, we continue to advance our ask to the general public for our operations levy passage,” Hughes told members of the City Council. “It would provide the funding necessary to sustain our growth and keep up with the growing call volumes and our lagging response times.”

Over the past few months, the department contracted a third-party evaluation of its medical services system, along with a fire station location study in hopes of building a sixth fire station in the growing Mullan area.

Hughes said Missoula Rural Fire is doing a similar study as it considers relocating its station at Reserve and South Avenue.

“We're working with them, as we do have an interlocal agreement which provides closest station response, which will facilitate responses on the fringe, so we do have resources deployed in a timely manner to those locations where we cross paths,” said Hughes.

Broken down, Hughes said that more than $18.7 million in the department's operating expenses go to personnel. It represents the department's largest expense, though it doesn't cover the department's need for a new fire company.

The requested levy, which goes to voters in June, would provide the department roughly $7 million a year to cover the cost of the fire company, along with the construction of Station 6 and other expenses, including the need for a new Type 1 fire engine.

“Engine costs are 50% over what they were pre-covid. We were paying around $550,000 for Type 1 engines. Now we're seeing a $1 million apparatus rolling off the plant, and those aren't even getting to us in three years,” said Hughes. “We have to put in our order to secure a spot in line, and it's three years before those apparatus are reaching their destination. Hopefully a levy passage would help in that (cost) respect.”

The department is also working to catch up on wages offered by comparable fire departments in cities that have a similar cost of living. Last year, Hughes said, the department adjusted its baseline budget to help cover rising utility and fuel costs, and some salary increases to cover promotions.

But that didn't include the contract settled with the fire union, and wages still lag, Hughes added.

“We have a wage opener this fiscal year to hopefully gain some more traction to hopefully get closer to that market rate,” said Hughes. “Before we went into the contract negotiations last year, our comparables were down 24% in the city's wages for firefighter ranks. Now we're closer to being down 14%. We're not thankfully seeing people jumping ship. Our retention is excellent. But where we're struggling is housing our new firefighters.”

Of the department's total budget, roughly $680,000 goes to operations. Hughes said the department needs to make up ground in that category as well.

“Operations is lagging primarily due to expenses with repairs to apparatus and our stations,” he said. “We've had to do some front-end work on our station repairs to bring us up to a level where we can implement our energy performance contract to hopefully save money on our energy consumption and efficiencies within our structures.”

The future of the Mobile Support Team may also lie in the fate of the requested fire levy. The city used Covid funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to begin the program, but it lacks the funding now to cover the program's ongoing costs.

Hughes placed the cost of the Mobile Support Team at around $1.3 million annually. Of that, more than $800,000 is covered by expiring grants and $438,000 includes personnel costs. While a new pot of state funding could help, Hughes said, funding the program could be a stretch if the levy failed.

“We're still in motion to provide those elements of what we've identified lacking in funding and a continuation of funding for operations, capital needs and a Station 6 building, along with the 20 firefighters we're asking for,” said Hughes. “The other item we're cautiously approaching in the levy funding is funding for the Mobile Support Team.”