SPANISH FORT – City Council members increased funding for the Spanish Fort Volunteer Fire Department by 20 percent, to $1 million, as the municipality continues to study making the organization a city department.
The council voted unanimously in a special meeting Wednesday, Jan. 6, to approve the annual contract with the fire department. The contract calls for the city to provide $1 million to the department in the current fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
Last year, the city gave the department $800,000.
Mayor Mike McMillan said the increase would be about enough to cover the department’s 2019-20 deficit of $179,000. This year, the SFVFD also plans to add three more full-time paid firefighters and will need to begin payments on a loan for a new fire engine.
Fire Chief Roger Few said the department now has 12 full-time firefighters and three other paid staff members. They also have six part-time firefighters on the payroll.
Few said city funding does not cover payroll costs. The department also depends on fundraising and Spanish Fort’s share of the revenue from a countywide 1-mill property tax for fire departments to pay operating expenses as well as some payroll costs.
“We did have a budget loss,” Few said. “The $1 million doesn’t’ even cover payroll. That’s $1,015,000 and change. Last year, $800,000 did not cover payroll. Last year, payroll was $923,000. The city’s contribution doesn’t even cover payroll, but we have some additional revenue that we use.”
Each department in Baldwin County receives about $199,000 a year from the tax. The money cannot be used for payrolls but can help pay operating expenses, Few said.
The Spanish Fort contract calls for the city to provide money for the department each year starting in October, when the new budget year begins. During election years, the city does not approve a new budget until the new term begins, so the city has not approved funding for the department for 2021, McMillan said.
He said the city scheduled the special council meeting to approve needed financial support. While the city is operating under the 2019-20 budget, Spanish Fort cannot pay the department until the annual contract is approved.
“I was told real quick that we had to have a special meeting to do that. I do not like special meetings more than anybody else, but things do come up that have to be handled,” McMillan said.
McMillan said that while expenses are increasing for the fire department and other agencies funded by the city, revenue is not going up. He said officials are studying how to pay for city needs as they prepare the new budget.
“Here’s another reality,” McMillan said. “Revenue is flat. Ad valorem is flat. Sales tax is flat. Yet our expenses keep going up because we love to give annual raises and COLA raises and make sure that our Police Department and Fire Department have all the things they need to take care of public safety.”
The mayor said city officials expect to have between $10 million and $11 million in revenue in 2021. About 40 percent of that income will go to the police and fire departments.
Councilman J.R. Smith said that while the departments take up a large share of city spending, the departments also include most of the city employees and require expensive equipment.
“Even though that sounds like a big number, that’s a majority of the workforce of the city and if you look at all of the fire trucks and the police vehicles and the turnout gear and the equipment the police have to have, that trumps a lot of typewriters and copying machines,” Smith said.
McMillan said the city is moving forward with plans to make the SFVFD a city operated agency. McMillan said Thursday that city officials are now looking at making the transition when the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, 2021.
Councilman Curt Smith said those plans were postponed in 2020 when the COVID-19 outbreak disrupted city operations and reduced revenue.
“We got pretty close, but in the end, COVID and other things, (City Clerk) Mary Lynn (Williams) retiring, the transition didn’t happen when we really thought it would, but at some point, I’m sure we’re going to pick that conversation back up and proceed on it.” Curt Smith said. “We were there. We actually drawing up documents for transition. We did some things. We had a transition date in mind of Oct. 1, but it all fell apart.”
Councilman Carl Gustafson said expenses will increase as the city grows and officials need to move forward with the transition.
“As the city continues to grow, aren’t the expenses expected to grow accordingly with the population growth of the city? So, we can expect to see more,” Gustafson said. “I think that’s another reason why that’s imperative that we fold this into the city as quickly as possible. Because it’s only going to go higher.”
Councilwoman Mary Brabner said bringing the fire department into the city would also allow municipal officials to better study financial operations of that agency.