Jackson Hole Fire/EMS Chief Brady Hansen was tentative when he asked county commissioners and town councilors for a bit of padding for his department’s 2021 budget.
“You have to set the bar, and we will follow the recommendation,” Hansen told officials. “But I wanted a chance to tell you that I was really feeling challenged.”
Last year the fire department slashed its budget, reducing training and maintenance to a minimum and pausing construction of Fire Station 1 to help the town and county deal with the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the department was busier than ever, Hansen told officials at last Wednesday’s joint town and county budget meeting.
Looking for a way to keep the budget flat and operate a second year with reduced funding was proving difficult, he said, describing how he’d already combed through the numbers in detail with Alyssa Watkins, administrator for the Teton County Board of County Commissioners.
“We’ve sat down and pored over these numbers,” Hansen said. “I’m fearful that in good faith I’m not able to stay flat.”
The number of calls for service has increased each year over the past decade, with a 30% jump since 2017. So far, the chief said, 2021 is on track to be even busier.
In order to meet demand Hansen asked the town and county to approve a $58,500 increase to the proposed 2021 budget. That funding would support critical training and maintenance projects, he said, and allow the department to hire a full-time wildland fire prevention specialist.
That position is common in other departments and came to Chief Hansen as a direct recommendation from Grand Teton National Park, the Bridger-Teton National Forest and the Teton Conservation District. The Conservation District also offered to support the position financially with a $45,000 stipend.
Town Councilor Arne Jorgensen supported the budget increase and the new hire. Teton County has been “dodging the bullet,” Jorgensen said, when it comes to wildfires.
County Commissioner Greg Epstein also supported the increase, saying it’s “not a big ask.”
The most pushback from commissioners came over the proposed addition of two new pickup trucks to the fire department’s fleet. Commissioner Mark Barron asked for them to be compressed natural gas vehicles, while others asked if it was possible to get by with only one new truck.
But the chief said one of the current vehicles is “very much on its last legs” and needs to be replaced, while the other new truck would free up a current vehicle to be handed down to Jackson Hole Community Pathways so it doesn’t have to purchase a new one.
“I don’t know the urgency behind that hand-down,” Hansen said, adding that it came as a request from Watkins.
The board didn’t discuss progress on Station 1, but Hansen told the News&Guide it is on budget and on schedule to be completed by the end of the year, thanks to “major changes” and a restructuring of the contract.
He also said he was pleased with the overall response from town and county leadership at Wednesday’s presentation. They will meet a few more times in May before finalizing department budgets.