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Years of conservative spending keep district financially stable during 'rainy day'

PMG FILE PHOTO: BRITTANY ALLEN - Sandy Fire Chief Phil Schneider says in his eight years as chief he has run the district like a business to plan for every contingency. Like many families and agencies, the Sandy Fire Department wasn't immune to the financial impacts of the pandemic. That said, Chief Phil Schneider said preliminary budgeting for next year shows "overall we're doing fairly well."

In the nearly a decade that Schneider has served as chief, he has worked to operate the district like a business.

"We're trying to be good stewards of other people's money," Schneider said. He added that the department averages about $55,000 coming in from back taxes every year and that 98% of the district's revenue is tax-related.

The tax rate of $2.17 per thousand has not changed in recent years and will not change even though the service area for Sandy Fire continues to grow.

The county has told Sandy Fire that to expect a 4%-4.5% growth in tax base this year, but in order to plan for worst-case contingencies, Schneider said they are budgeting as if they'll see a 2% growth in tax revenue.

"We're going to be a little tighter this year (budget-wise)," he said, explaining that as of now the district is projecting to have a shortfall of $70,000 based on how the assessed value from the county fluctuated over the course of 2021. Even with the department's conservative budgeting, so far they've seen $70,000 less than projected come in in tax dollars for last year.

"We should have been way under," Schneider said, remaining optimistic. "We can make that up. This year we have $240,000 going into funded accounts, and we'll put $100,000 aside as a contingency. We're not going to overspend, so when there are shortfalls, we stop spending. I try to set us up for those ups and downs."

Though there was a shortfall, Schneider said more tax dollars are coming in on time rather than as back taxes like they have in previous years.

"This is the first year we're seeing that trending up," he said. "I'm not taking anything for granted. We'll still budget 2% under what's projected to be safe. It's kind of playing the game in numbers."

Schneider explained that this is the first time in his tenure that the department will have had this kind of budgetary shortfall.

"Every time, regardless, we try to budget as if growth will be 2% less than what's projected," Schneider said. "This has been kind of a shock. That pattern of the last eight years that we got on was shattered. We've always come in under budget (on spending) and been OK. That's how we got to where we are today."

During the past few years, the department administrators have invested in a few different pieces of equipment to help them better serve their district, including a new sprayer and a few other larger products.

"We also tried to utilize any of the free assets we could get, so our own taxpayers didn't have to pay for it upfront," he said.

While Schneider said he doesn't anticipate the slight deficit the department's experiencing to have a huge impact, the recent hike in fuel prices has become a concern, since firefighters are increasingly answering more and more calls for service. The department, like many other agencies, also has seen a supply shortage of medical and first-aid products.

"Whether COVID has a lot to do with it or not, most things are either on back order or we can't get them," Schneider said. The one capital purchase the department has budgeted for now is to get new EMS kits that match those of neighboring agencies so that when providing or receiving mutual aid, all of the equipment used is the same.

Also in flux is the paid firefighters' union membership; on June 30 the firefighters' contracts are up and the department will go into negotiations.

The paid staff plan to switch over to the Clackamas Fire's union, which will be made easier by the fact that the district is now in an intergovernmental agreement with Clackamas.

"The only reason we're OK (financially) now is we've been fairly conservative and saved away for a rainy day," Schneider said. Even with the deficit, he added: "All services will still be provided."

Schneider partially attributes the department's readiness for this "rainy day" to the IGA with Clackamas, which provides them with shared paid staff, training and more.

"I don't know if there's a huge savings (from being in the IGA) but I think we're doing well for what we're getting from the deal," he said. Initially, the department had planned to hire four new firefighters, but financially that's become less feasible this year. Fortunately, Schneider said, the IGA helps keep the service level needed for the Sandy Fire district where it needs to be.

"This is a win-win on both sides," he added. "We're not seeing personnel funding as an issue. I think we overall have a very dedicated force. What we're doing right, I feel good about."

The district's budget committee is still in the process of finalizing the 2022 budget. The district also is conducting a feasibility study in partnership with Clackamas Fire to look at the current quality of service.

"In the next year we'll be digesting what does the future look like for Sandy Fire," Schneider said. "(As of now) we're getting the job done and we're not asking (taxpayers) for any more money."


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