Fire, police get praise at budget time
by Rick DeClue · News · January 10, 2014

West Branch is fortunate, spending approximately 25 percent of the city’s budget on quality public safety versus 50 percent for many communities, according to City Administrator Matt Muckler.
The primary reason for the difference in costs is our volunteer fire department, Muckler told the City Council on Monday.

During a budget work session, Fire Chief Kevin Stoolman provided the council with a preliminary capital improvement budget for next year. The most important request, he said, is for replacement of a rescue truck and related equipment at a cost of $385,000.

The WBFD can buy the truck next year because the department received an anonymous $75,000 donation in 2013. Stoolman said the department tries to set aside $100,000 from its budget each year for capital purchases.

Muckler said the city pays about 30 or so fire personnel a total of about $30,000, an average of about $1,000 per person.

Stoolman said he receives $2,500 per year, with truck captains, the department’s medical officer and a few others receiving smaller amounts. Most personnel get a stipend of $5 per call.

The WBFD responds to about 400 to 450 per year. Six surrounding townships, two in Johnson County and four in Cedar County, provide approximately two-thirds of the department’s funding, relative to their share of calls.

The department covers one of the largest districts in the state with full services, Mayor Mark Worrell said.

For example, Tipton’s department does not provide Emergency Medical Service, relying on contracted ambulances, said Stoolman.

Police Chief Mike Horihan’s budget request for the coming year includes one to two part-time officers to work a total of twenty hours per week. This will primarily be used to lessen the number of “on call” hours currently covered by three full-time officers, one being the chief. If an officer is on vacation or training, the on-call load can reach 120 hours, plus the normal 40 hours on-duty.

Citing the on-call hours, the department’s effort to provide 24-hour coverage seven days a week and the goal to minimize response time for every call, Worrell said to Horihan, “You’re trying to do all of that with not enough officers.”

Horihan nodded his agreement.

Relieving the on-call load and continuing to improve overall salary levels will also help the department compete with surrounding agencies to retain staff and attract new officers, said Horihan.

Horihan’s list of capital and equipment needs is related to technology and communications. The police chief said federal and state law enforcement has moved to a paperless digital structure that requires many upgrades in West Branch. This will include everything from phones to radios and computers.

The chief would also like to replace the department’s pistols with models that are easier to maintain, plus plan for replacement of another squad car.

Horihan stressed that his goal was to meet these needs over several years to avoid presenting the city with a huge request all in one year.

Another issue regarding how the city compensates for our public safety was raised by state Rep. Bobby Kaufmann prior to the budget session. Kaufmann referred to a recent state tax credit created for providers of essential services.

Kaufmann felt the level of the tax credit — $50 per person — was ridiculously low. He said he had made his thoughts clear by taking the topic to the House floor and calling it an insult to the men and women who provide these services. He has approached the committee responsible for the level of the credit, asking it be increased to $500.

Kaufmann said, “I doubt I’ll get that, but I threw it out to start the conversation.”

He was also disappointed that the credit did not apply to EMS personnel because they are not designated as an essential government service. Rather than saying cities “will” provide, the language reads ”may” provide EMS services, Kaufmann said.

He was emphatic in his disagreement on the amount of the credit and its narrow application, and will work to improve both, he said.

With the election and seating of new council members, Muckler said the budget process is slightly shorter this year. Additional budget work session will be held on Jan. 21, Feb. 3 and Feb. 18 prior to the county certification deadline of March 15.

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