Albany Fire Chief John Bradner was driving back from Eugene recently when he glanced down at his dashboard and saw the temperature.
“It said 90 degrees!” he said. “It’s not even the middle of May.”
High temperatures and low humidity have the chief concerned about the upcoming fire season. But he spent the last week putting out a different sort of fire.
On April 2, Albany City Manager Peter Troedsson presented a proposed budget to the city's budget committee, outlining cuts to several city departments including fire and police. The cuts, he said, were necessary not only because costs were outpacing revenue but also because the city needed to prepare for a possible recession some economists are forecasting for the near future.
“Unless the landscape changes, we’re faced with losing six dual-role firefighter/paramedics,” Troedsson said, noting that there would also be two demotions, the elimination of the technical rescue team — tasked with unique rescues — and the loss of a deputy fire marshal.
So, Bradner worked to change the landscape between April 2 and the May 7 budget committee meeting.
“As a fire department, we’re in a unique position in that we assess fees for some of our services,” he said. “It worked out well because we were probably in the process of looking at raising our rates some point in time and it worked out to be able to do that and put together a solution for the council instead of saying, ‘We have this problem; we have to cut,’ we were able to say, ‘We have this problem, but here’s a solution.’”
The solution included raising ambulance and inspection fees, but costs were also cut with the change in payroll software that saved $75,000 and a negotiation in health insurance costs that were at first budgeted to cost the city 15% more but ended up costing just 4% more.
“That was part of it,” Bradner said. “Estimates became actuals, and it’s always better when you budget high and then come in low than the other way around,” he said.
Bradner said the department, which is still budgeted to freeze three firefighter positions, is in better shape than the Albany Police Department, which is facing more wrenching cuts.
“We’re still taking cuts,” he said. “And realistically, all departments are going to take cuts through this process. Property tax revenue, which is our central source of funding, just isn’t supporting the growth and everything associated with that. We set the need at a certain point and then, to some degree, settle.”
What will settling look like as the department — which has seen a 70% increase in calls over the last decade — makes do and prepares for the next two-year budget cycle?
Bradner said if the department's budget goes forward in its current state, "the average customer should see little change, and that was one of my goals throughout the process. I wanted to avoid layoffs and at the time, the scope we were talking about it, the only way to get there was to eliminate positions, and that wasn’t acceptable to me.”
And while the department managed to walk back the grim picture presented on April 2, there’s still cause for worry.
“One of our concerns, though, is, we’re seeing huge increases in our call volume. How do we make sure the resources are continuously there?” Bradner said. “Unfortunately, people don’t schedule their emergencies and so they happen at the same time a lot of times. That’s the challenge, how to make sure we’re staffed appropriately for the fourth heart attack at the same time as the other three medical emergencies.”
The budget, if approved, would maintain the minimum staffing levels at the Albany Fire Department. Bradner said people sometimes raise questions about the need for cutbacks just a few years after voters approved a bond to build a new headquarters for the department.
“A bond paid for this station, but the staffing comes from our annual operating budget that’s funded through fees we assess as a department,” Bradner said. “We’re grateful for the voters passing the bond so we could build this station but we then have to staff it.”
Now, he said, the department is preparing in case the next budget cycle is just as tight.
A community outreach effort is in place to educate residents about the services the department provides. One of the goals of the effort is to possibly reduce the number of calls to which the department responds, and he talked about medical calls as a example.
“We’re the most expensive entrance into the health care system,” Bradner said. “If you call 911 and get an ambulance, that bill is going to $1,500, $1,800, and then you’re seeing an emergency room doctor and getting X-rays and blood tests and leaving with an antibiotic.”
But sometimes, he said, people have less expensive options that don't involve summoning an ambulance. Part of the outreach effort is aimed at educating people on their options before calling 911 and other entry points into the health care system.
Bradner gave another example that didn't involve medical calls, but one that was timely with a backyard burn ban in effect: He noted that residents don’t have to call 911 when they see neighbors burning. They can use the nonemergency line, 541-917-7700.
“Someone will come out and explain it,” he said. “If we can avoid those brush fires, that’s what we want to do."