For the past decade, the fire department has been a “revolving door” for part-time firefighters leaving for full-time jobs, said fire chief Don Bennett. The levy will help the department move from a combined department — where almost half of every shift is made up of part-time workers — to a career department, where all firefighters are hired full-time.
The chief said if the city moved to career service without the help of the replacement tax and instead supplemented funding for the fire department from the general fund, it would be “catastrophic.”
“The reality of 29,000 overtime hours (in one year) in a department of this size, and $1.4 million (paid); it’s an interest-only loan,” he said. “We’re not doing anything to build equity or longevity in this department, not to mention that we probably have 11 people approaching retirement, which will easily take 25-30 years of experience in each case.”
Bennett said that by 2029, the general fund is expected to be $2.8 million in the hole, depleting the city’s needed rainy-day fund and jeopardizing its Aa1 bond rating (the second-best rating possible).
Fairfield chief financial officer Jake Burton added that supplementing the fire department would also cut funding for other high-priority items, such as policing, capital projects, street improvements and economic development.
The levy would raise $11.24 million a year to help convert the 36 part-time positions to 18 full-time positions. The plan is to hire six full-time firefighters by early 2023, then hire three full-time firefighters per year in each of the following four years. Bennett hopes the city will eventually be approved for a new federal Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Staffing Grant, which would 100% fund a designated number of new hire firefighters for three years. The city was rejected in 2021 after the city council refused the grant in 2019.
The city will need to monitor projections and forecasts closely, as Burton stated, “Six years is the minimum term that the new fee would fund the fire department without any additional revenue sources or supplements to the general fund. is not necessary.
But fire officials say the step is necessary to keep the experiment within the department. Since January 2019, 78 part-time firefighters have left the city. Almost 77.9% of these former staff left for full-time employment in the fire service and 19.5% left for full-time employment in the private sector.
This “revolving door” has also meant that the level of experience has gone down, the chef said.
In September 2015, 25 of the 48 part-time employees had more than two years of experience in the fire service. Five years later, there were only 14 of 48. As of this month, only nine of the 36 part-timers had more than two years of experience.
The new problem is that part-time vacancies cannot be filled because there are too many full-time openings in the area.
“We have eight part-time openings with no applications on file,” Bennett said.
The Cincinnati Fire Department has 120 full-time openings and the City of Columbus has 200. In Butler County, Hamilton, Fairfield Twp., Ross Twp., West Chester Twp. And Liberty Twp. are all looking for full-time firefighters.
Fairfield resident Steve Barrett of the Court of Parliament said he did not disagree with the need to provide more funding to the department, but stressed that “what I am not with agreement, this is the method of financing this need”.
“It’s not going to make me miss a meal paying more money on my property tax, but it’s just peak, peak, peak, peak, peak,” he said. “No one will miss 50 cents (a day), I guess, but that’s the principle for me. … The government still wants to tax me.
He wondered if the council had debated other ways to fix funding for the fire department before pursuing a levy. City Council has been discussing the issue of fire department staffing and finances for three years.
Councilor Matt Davidson, who is less than a month into his four-year term, said he was ‘comfortable’ continuing with the levy after multiple meetings and presentations, answering all questions that he and residents who approached him had on city staff. He said the levy was not the city’s first, or even second, option.
“I’ve seen time and time again where we’ve made those cuts, we’ve made those sacrifices, and we’ve looked for other ways to do that. I know we’ve done everything we can and that’s what we have to do.
The matter was sent to the Butler County Board of Elections to be reviewed for certification for the May primary ballot.