Helena voters consider tax levy to increase fire department staffing

Posted at 6:22 PM, May 24, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-05 14:51:39-04

(HELENA) Helena Fire Department leaders say it has been about 20 years since they had a significant increase in staffing. That could change this year, if Helena voters approve a new property tax levy in the June 5 primary election.

The proposed levy would raise about $900,000 a year. $600,000 would be used to hire additional firefighters, while the rest would pay for fire apparatus and equipment purchases.

The Helena Fire Department currently has seven firefighters on duty at a time. Chief Mark Emert said that’s enough to handle a single fire or two or three medical calls. If any more calls come in, he said they have to free up resources, or even call in off-duty employees, to cover the incidents.

“We’ve had to try and break away or cut service short on one call to scramble to put together a unit to get to those third and fourth calls,” he said.

There were 90 cases in 2017 where HFD’s response was delayed because they didn’t have enough responders available. Emert said the delays ranged from seconds to several minutes.

If voters approve the levy, HFD will hire six new firefighters, allowing them to have two more active members for each of their three shifts.

“It would allow us to almost staff another functional unit, for those times when we get those third and fourth calls, which is occurring more and more as time goes on,” Emert said.

HFD responded to about 4,000 calls last year. Emert said that number is slightly lower than previous years because some minor medical calls are being handled by ambulance services instead of the fire department. However, he said he expects the call load to increase consistently in the coming years.

Emert said Helena’s population has grown about 20 percent since the last time the department added permanent staffing. They increased from six on-duty firefighters at a time to seven last year, but only by putting current employees on additional overtime duty.

Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins made increasing public safety staffing a priority during his campaign last year. He said a tax levy is the best way to accomplish that.

“There’s no wiggle room in the budget for such an increase,” he said. “That’s why we’re taking it to the voters, taking it to the citizens of Helena and explaining the need for this.”

About $300,000 of each year’s levy money will be set aside as a capital improvement fund for the fire department. It could be used to purchase firefighting and rescue vehicles and to replace aging equipment.

The levy could also indirectly benefit other city departments. Currently, Helena has a capital improvement budget, taken from the city’s general fund and shared among HFD, the Helena Police Department, Helena Parks and Recreation and other agencies. If the levy passes, more of that money will be available for the other departments.

The proposed levy would increase taxes $18.43 a year on a $100,000 home and $36.85 a year on a $200,000 home.

Collins said he hopes Helena voters will see the value of addressing emergency response delays.

“We live in an environment that should be safe,” he said. “If our firefighters are not making those calls, if our emergency responders are not making those calls, we’re living in an unsafe environment.”