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Putting out fires

By Staff | Sep 6, 2017

It’s Fire Chief Matt Love’s second year crunching numbers to rework the budget for the Fort Myers Beach Fire District.

Last year, Love underwent a major restructuring of the budget and how it was presented to the board of commissioners. Now, he has a plan in place to follow, he said. The first budget hearing is set for Sept. 14 at 5:05 p.m.at the Fort Myers Beach Library.

We sat down with Chief Love to discuss the finer points of this year’s budget, now that he’s been able to massage it to his liking over the past year.

Will the millage stay at 2.58?

Last year, I told the board we could probably keep the millage rate at 2.58 for three years.

When the board set the TRIM, they did it differently than in the past. We chose to set the TRIM at 2.58, which is what the millage is at now. Usually they’ll set it high and then work their way through it. This year, they set the TRIM at 2.58 and that sounds like it will be the number.

Last year, we did an incredibly thorough restructure of our financial longterm planning, including properly saving up for everything we need to maintain. That included issues like life spans and replacement values. If those things are off, you’re not saving the right amount. After creating that, you create a plan. When we implemented that, we said there are two things we need to do, move forward with the new plan and catch up. The catch-up issues was because we had the wrong replacement values, the wrong life spans, we had capital equipment that was going way too long prior to being replaced and a compounding maintenance bill. Had to find that sweet spot where we could still get something for it when we offload it and maintenance hasn’t gone through the roof to where we can’t afford to keep it anymore. So we put together the new plan to move forward and a five year catch-up, to get the fleet caught up to replacement plans. To achieve that, we said here’s the taxation rate we need, so that’s why we landed at 2.58. After three years we’ll reassess it, but we’re still in the catch-up phase. We want to stick with what we told the community we want to do.

Last year your goal for the budget was setting up that savings and capital plan.What is your goal for this year’s budget?

This year’s budget, the overarching, number one goal is to be sure our people are being compensated properly.

We spent quite a bit of last year doing a salary assessment, immediately around us and county-wide fire departments, we assessed every single rank, all the different incentives, our HR people did awesome.

Our goal was to determine where are our folks on the spectrum and what’s the gap. We unfortunately did find that our folks were definitely on the low side, by far. Some ranks were closer to the average, others were way below it, but none of them were above it. Some ranks are multi-thousands dollars below where they should be. Not just a little bit, they’re lower than they should be.

We took that data, decided what our goal pay would be. Our goal pay we decided would be right around the middle, the average of whatever everyone else in the area pays; the goal was not to be the most or the littlest, we want to be right in the middle. Then we worked backwards and said how long will it take us to get to that pay? We’re looking at a three-year phase in to get our folks’ salaries to that average rate. It’s one thing to say our people need to be paid more but to have the data in front of us to prove where they’re at in comparison, that was key. That wasn’t emotional, it was data-driven.

It will take a little chiseling to get to things up where they need to be, but I want to do what I preach. When I say people are our number one asset, there’s no doubt about it, we need to be properly taking care of them.

What’s the status of your capital asset savings and acquiring plan you began last year?

We’re still in the five year plan. Year 1, a fire engine and staff vehicles. Year 2, more staff vehicles, Year 3, a ladder truck. Year 4, more staff vehicles. Year 5, another engine. Last year was the year of an engine, they cost about $565,000. We ordered the engine, however, what used to be a 9-month build is looking to be an 11-month build, so it’s pushed into this year’s budget. The down payment from last year’s budget is moved to this year’s. It doesn’t take 11 months to build it, you get placed in line when you put in your order. You don’t go to the lot like a car and “I’ll take that one.” Fire trucks are supposed to be built for the community they serve, it’s not a one size fits all thing. So you’ll see that hold over and about four support cars.

Building maintenance is creeping up. That’s not abnormal but we see a steady cost increase in maintaining them. Fire Station 31 is getting up in age and has a lot to address. We’ve started doing data collection on how much that renovation could be.

It’s been said the turnover rate at Fort Myers Beach is high. What are you doing to encourage retention?

It’s not that bad, but it’s substantial. For this part of the country in general, we see a lot of folks apply for the Miami’s, the Orlando’s, the big departments. East coast seems to be a big draw. And they’ll sit on that hiring list for two plus years waiting to be hired. So between that time they apply to other jobs, so you apply for another job like us and you might get it. You start working and maybe Miami will call and maybe they won’t. We see predominately east coast people come over here, they get a job, they get experience, but when Miami calls they go. Maybe their heart’s set on Miami or their family is there. Our assessment was, we aren’t unique. But biggest things are one, make sure our pay is competitive, two, really changing the culture of the organization. I think that has been the focus. We hired an operations chief but also a training officer and those changes are just now taking effect. Some of those things really change the culture and make it a best in class organization. People like to say if you pay people well they’ll come, but there’s a lot more to it. I think building that environment where people are becoming trained and really excellent in service is going to keep people wanting to hang around here for longer. It’s a multiyear process.

Any challenges in this year’s budget process?

Pre-budget is the challenge, getting it ready. I think the organization is in the next phase of our change.

I’ve been here about a year and a half and I’ve been working on s lot of the foundational principles. The financial stuff, now we’re going to start seeing the fruits of those labors. I think that’s what we’re gearing up for, that constant organizational change that our guys are going to feel for a few years. It’s all really good change but it’s a lot to absorb.

These changes aren’t glamorous. They’re foundational, the procedures and principles everything else is built on. It takes a lot of work, and you don’t see a final product. But it’s more meaningful than a product.