At a time when Columbia County government department heads are expected to trim budgets by 5 percent, some officials will spend the next month working to cut one department's budget that has grown by nearly 5 percent.
Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue officials proposed a 2010-11 budget of more than $9.4 million, which is nearly $464,000 more than the current budget.
"It is a good bit higher than it was last year," Chief Doug Cooper said.
Since the county contracted Martinez-Columbia in 2006 to provide fire service for the county, the department budget has steadily grown each year since as it has added more stations, trucks and personnel.
But the growth in the 2010-11 budget does not include any new hires and eliminated merit raises for employees.
Cooper attributes much of the increase to a mistake of nearly $125,000 in salary calculations in the current budget. The funding for salaries was underestimated.
"It was just an oversight," said Pam Tucker, Emergency and Operations Division director. "In any budget, the personnel is your biggest cost."
The department also faces a significant increase in the cost of workers' compensation insurance. The former provider went bankrupt, and department officials were forced to quickly find another provider at a higher cost.
The department is paying $373,000 annually for the insurance, which is about $80,000 more than last year.
"Right now, we're trying to get quotes from other companies," Cooper said.
The department is operating under a more than $8.9 million budget. Department officials proposed the $9.4 million budget to maintain the current level of service. A second option, lowering the proposed budget to about $9.2 million, includes closing a fire station and eliminating seven positions.
"We hope we don't have to close any stations," Cooper said. "We're going to do everything we can not to close any stations."
The budget proposal also shows the effects of increasing operating costs with higher insurance, taxes and utilities bills.
"We just completed that training center up there (in Appling) and that thing is not anywhere near free," Cooper said, adding that the department charges a fee to other departments for use of the training center to help offset the operating costs.
Natural gas for the training center costs about $10,000 per year, Tucker said.
"We never pad our budget," Cooper said. "We figure it down to the penny what we'd need."
But the budget is far from finalized. Tucker said several meetings will be held between county and department officials in the next month to pare down the budget.
Tucker said county officials are assisting the department in searching for a new workers' compensation insurance provider among other things. And everyone is considering creative ideas to make a slimmer budget work, she said.
"We all have the same goal; we just have to figure out how to get there," Tucker said. "We wish we had a money tree somewhere up there in the government center parking lot."
Tucker said she expects the final budget proposal to be ready next month.
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