INDIAN BEACH — While town staff seeks new equipment, Town Manager Tim White says it looks like the new fiscal year will bring a property tax rate increase.
Town officials met Monday for their annual retreat at Summer Winds condominium complex. During the retreat, the board of commissioners received reports from department heads on projects and goals they wish to pursue this year and well into the future.
Fire/EMS Chief Josh Haraway, who was brought on in December, has been evaluating the state of the department since his arrival.
At Monday’s retreat, he gave a report on what he thinks the department needs in order to provide the best level of service for the town.
“Currently, our department is a four on an ISO (Insurance Service Office) rating,” the chief said. ISO ratings are based on the level of service quality of a given Fire/EMS department, among other factors, and help determine the fire insurance rates for the department’s area of service. The ratings range from one to 10, with one being the best and 10 being the lowest.
“We’re a few points away from being a class three,” Chief Haraway said. The chief had a list of equipment requests and other changes he said could help earn a better rating.
However, Mr. White, who was hired mid-June, said the town budget isn’t in good shape, and in fiscal year 2019-20, it may require a penny increase on the existing ad valorem property tax rate of 22.5 cents per $100 of property value.
Mr. White said the town’s unreserved fund balance has been steadily declining since about 2012. That year, the unreserved fund balance was $1.79 million. At the end of 2018, it had dropped to $255,000.
“We’re going to monitor the budget more closely going forward,” Mr. White said. “I suggest we set up a fund balance policy to determine where we want to be. I suggest we shoot for a target of 50 percent (of the total budget). That would give us an (unreserved) fund balance of about $750,000.”
This may not be the only year with a property tax rate increase, either. Mr. White said building a fund balance might require raising the tax rate by a penny each year for the next four years.
He said some of the equipment and improvement projects Chief Haraway was proposing weren’t intended for 2019, but as part of a five-year improvement plan for his department. However, some items important to fire/EMS staff safety do need to be addressed this year, according to the manager.
One of these equipment priorities is new turnout gear – the protective suits firefighters wear. Chief Haraway said they currently have 28 total personnel in his department, including full- and part-time staff.
“Currently the department has seven sets of turnout gear under a year old, with three sets ordered,” the chief said. “I have 15 part-timers with only three sets for them.”
Chief Haraway said some of the gear is in rough shape, with holes in it. Firefighters also have to share gear, and due to the size requirements of some of the taller and bigger firefighters, they have to use turnout gear that’s 10 years old or more.
“We have a responsibility to protect our firefighters,” Chief Haraway said. “We’re recommending buying 10 sets of turnout gear and to purchase four sets every year in a replacement plan.”
The 10 sets of turnout gear are estimated to cost about $19,540. The cost of replacing four sets each year is estimated at $7,816 per year.
Chief Haraway also recommends purchasing a new thermal imaging camera, estimated at $7,890, to equip a second apparatus with one. The department currently has one thermal imaging camera, so there’s no backup if it breaks and the department has to spend time swapping it from one vehicle to another for different calls.
The chief also recommends purchasing six dual band radios for about $10,000. The department currently has four of these radios, and Chief Haraway said that during Hurricane Florence in September, communication between personnel was difficult with multiple calls going out.
Other recommendations Chief Haraway made included:
• Increasing the EMS medical supply budget from $10,000 to $20,000.
• Creating three lieutenant positions and one EMS lieutenant position in the department and promoting existing personnel, with an increase of $3,500 to each of their salaries.
• Remodeling the fire station, with particular focus on replacing the kitchen, dayroom, chief’s office and captain’s office.
• Replacing a 10-year-old ladder truck when it reaches 15 years, estimated to cost about $1.2 million.
• Purchasing an emergency response boat for calls that can’t be answered using the department’s existing jet ski.
• Creating a new deputy chief position for the fire/EMS department.
Police Chief A.J. Sutzko said he supported all of Chief Haraway’s recommendations. Chief Sutzko had a few recommendations for his own department, as well, including purchasing a new patrol truck for about $29,000 and replacing two tasers for about $2,000.
Back on the subject of the town’s budget, Mr. White said during his own presentation to the board that currently, town expenditures average about $145,000 per month. He said he feels “better about our (the town’s) cash flow” from property tax revenues, but he needs to meet with county tax office staff and with Indian Beach’s tax collector – who is also the Pine Knoll Shores collector – about delinquent taxes.
“We’re not where I think we should be financially,” Mr. White said. “This is fixable. We’re just going to have to work on this during budget time.”
Some of Mr. White’s own projects he wants to tackle in 2019 include conducting a pay study on town staff pay levels, complete setting up official email accounts for all town officials, updating the town’s personnel policy, updating the town’s website and improving public communications via social media.
The commissioners all seemed surprised by the news of the town’s financial state and the state of the fire/EMS department.
“It’s eye-opening news,” Mayor Steward Pickett said. “I had no idea the shape we were in.”
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.