Published in The Maui News, July 24, 2016
By MIKE WHITE , The Maui News
In the fiscal year 2017 budget, the Maui Fire Department was appropriated $32.9 million. Over the past six years, its budget has grown more than $6 million, or 22.5 percent. While the County Council has reduced proposed budget requests, the department has always received more than its previous year’s funding.
In his July 15 “Our County” column, the mayor places blame on the council for cutting funds (“Fire Department funds should be restored”). Instead of coming up with solutions, he has resorted to paid social media to promote his piece, which only reflects half the story.
The County Council has the highest respect for the professionalism and hard work of the Fire Department. If resources were endless, council members no doubt would grant every department’s request for funding. Unfortunately, we live in the reality where resources are limited.
One of the biggest challenges the council faced is the increase in salaries and other employment costs. These costs in fiscal year 2017 are $65 million higher than in 2013. That is equal to all of the property taxes collected from Wailuku, Kahului, Upcountry, Makawao, Haiku and Paia combined.
For the fiscal year that ended June 30, the fire chief estimated a shortage of $2.8 million. Later, the mayor’s budget office recalculated the shortage and learned it was inflated by $1.3 million. The council passed a budget amendment approving an additional $1.5 million, but the Fire Department still ended with a surplus of $787,000.
There are many other programs that could have used that money.
A review of the department’s books for fiscal year 2016 revealed salaries were overstated by nearly $1.5 million, giving them a cushion to spend as they please.
When a request was made for an explanation, the department did not justify the significant overstatement. A breakdown or revised budget was not provided, which left the council frustrated.
The council declined a request for three tanker driver positions at the Hana Station that would have resulted in over $500,000 per year in additional pay and benefits. It was declined because fire callout data indicate that the tanker was used only about once per month and could be driven by the fifth person at the station.
In 2009, the county had three battalion chiefs. In 2010, the number doubled and shift responsibilities per battalion chief dropped from 14 stations to seven. Salary and benefit costs from those positions rose from $391,088 in 2009 to $1.6 million in the latest request. With these increases, the council asked the chief to complete an analysis on how the rapidly escalating costs can be curbed.
The county’s two assistant fire chiefs, along with the fire chief and the deputy fire chief, all play an important role during major incidents. Battalion chiefs should not be left with the entire load during incidents like the last brush fires.
Salaries and benefits for the four chiefs are nearly $1.04 million annually. The county is willing to invest in them because these are the leaders who should take command during critical incidents and make strategic management decisions.
The new fiscal year began on July 1. I would hope the county’s managers in the Fire Department can identify alternate solutions and achieve operational efficiencies without affecting core services, like all other county departments are tasked to do.
The council takes its budgeting responsibility seriously.
Our residents and businesses must make efficient use of their resources. We should expect the same of our county departments.
* Mike White is chairman of the Maui County Council. He holds the council seat for the Paia-Haiku-Makawao residency area. “Chair’s 3 Minutes” is a weekly column to explain the latest news on county legislative matters. Go to mauicounty.us for more information.