Jackson Hole Fire/EMS should be packing up to prepare to move to its new downtown fire station this summer.
Instead the department is working to slash its budget while also handling a record number of calls for service.
“With the COVID response we are tracking the most 911 calls we’ve ever run,” Fire Chief Brady Hansen said at Thursday’s joint information meeting.
Because of anticipated tight funding some elected officials have been tossing out the idea of halting construction on Station No. 1 and keeping firefighters at a temporary fairgrounds station until the town and county are fiscally sound.
Jackson Hole Fire/EMS was awarded $6.8 million in the 2017 specific purpose excise tax election for department remodel projects, plus an extra $2.3 million that was left over from the 2014 SPET election. But unforeseen issues with the foundation at Station No. 1 has put that project behind schedule and over budget. And now it’s in flux because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“How are the digs at the fairgrounds and, in theory, would it be possible to ride it out at the fairgrounds a little longer and come back to the Station One construction?” Councilor Jim Stanford asked Hansen during his budget presentation last week.
Hansen said working conditions are OK at the temporary fairgrounds station, but it wasn’t built as a long-term station house.
“It was built with the end user in mind,” Hansen told the News&Guide.
The deal was the fire department would enclose a pavilion at the fairgrounds and work out of it until Station No. 1 was finished and then the building would be a community center.
It doesn’t have floor drains or proper diesel exhaust extraction.
“If it turns out our project has to be put on hold then we will have to explore the conditions at the temporary station,” Hansen said.
Hansen said there are contractural obligations that also need to be considered with the fire station project, and the fact that voters selected to pay for it with a tax.
“There is currently a fraction of $4 million in SPET funding to fund this project and that will get us — if not all the way through this year — most of the way,” Hansen said. “There could be additional funds needed this year, but the bulk of that will be met with what is remaining in SPET.”
Fire/EMS has already cut more than $300,000 from this year’s budget by securing donors for line items like a brush truck and chest compression devices.
Commissioner Mark Barron, once a proponent of exploring a pause on construction, changed direction last week.
“For a number of reasons I was certainly looking at a pause on this,” Barron said at the joint meeting on Thursday. “But given the money is already there it makes sense to me to continue this project. And we have a lot of local people working on that project.”
In order to cut from fiscal year 2021’s budget Fire/EMS trimmed from capital expenses.
“The hardest thing we cut was an ambulance,” Hansen said. “Recognizing we have to do away with most of our capital, we deferred that for another year.”
Mayor Pete Muldoon asked Hansen if additional cuts would slow emergency response times.
“We can’t keep asking you to do more with less,” Muldoon said.
But the town has said it won’t be able to contribute as much to the town and county’s joint departments, which includes Fire/EMS.
“The three joint departments of Fire/EMS, parks and recreation and dispatch are requesting funding larger than the overall average reductions recommended for town departments,” Town Manager Larry Pardee wrote to some county employees in an email obtained by the News&Guide.
Jackson Hole Fire/EMS has been operating less like it’s shoulder season and more like it’s summer because of COVID-19 calls.
“Despite the town being essentially shuttered, calls for service have actually increased for Fire/EMS,” Hansen told elected officials last week.
Hansen said that because of Teton County’s size and road layouts it’s hard to measure the department’s efficiency with response times. Instead they try to trim preparation time.
“What we have set our eyes on is not having a significant delay in getting en route,” Hansen said. “Instead of trying to get to a critical call within 10 minutes we want to have vehicles en route to that call within five minutes. Can we meet that goal with less? We will do our best to be as lean as we can be.”