Will West County Fire & EMS Job Cuts Affect Service?
Three positions were eliminated this year. The fire chief says the cuts are due to the current economic climate, as well as a new contract with Town & Country.
This year, three West County EMS and Fire Protection District positons were eliminated which resulted in three employees losing their jobs. Former Community Liason Officer Kim Bacon, who was laid off in November, tells Patch the layoffs are the result of a new contract the district negotiated with the City of Town and Country. West County EMS and Fire provides fire and ambulance service for Town and Country because the city does not have its own fire department. The contract, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2012, puts West County EMS at a $2.5 million loss over a period of five years, or half-a-million dollars each year.
(Read Previous Story: New Fire, Ambulance Contract to Save Town and Country Millions)
Last week, Bacon spoke with Patch about the layoffs.
“I was told Town and Country ate my job,” Bacon said.
The West County EMS and Fire Protection District provides fire and ambulance services to Manchester, Town and Country, Valley Park, Winchester, portions of Ballwin and Des Peres and the Corporate Hill campus. Bacon said 39 percent of emergency calls to the fire district come from Town and Country.
West County EMS and Fire Protection Distict Chief Dave Frazier confirmed that an accounting clerk was laid off in March; the finance officer was laid off in June and the community liaison officer was laid off in November. Frazier said the layoffs were necessary in part because of tough economic times and in part because of the district’s new contract with Town and Country.
Town and Country’s Budget Deficit
In 2009, the Walmart located in Town and Country's Manchester Meadows shopping center, just off Manchester Road, moved to the Manchester Highlands shopping complex in the City of Manchester. That relocation left Town and Country with a sales-tax revenue deficit, according to 2009 Board of Aldermen meeting minutes. The loss of sales tax, combined with a declining economy and the city’s zero-property-tax rate, caused city officials to take several measures to prevent a budget deficit.
In Town and Country’s Winter 2010 Newsletter, Mayor Jon Dalton addressed the city’s money shortfalls, stating the city had to make difficult decisions in order to remain fiscally responsible. According to the newsletter, the city had projected general fund revenues to decline by $679,000 in 2011.
“Without a doubt, it’s just no fun to deliver tough news. Nonetheless, cost-cutting whenever possible and appropriate is the right and responsible thing to do,” Dalton said in the newsletter.
Among the cost-cutting measures, Town and Country laid off five employees and eliminated their positions, reduced the deer-management fund, and began the process of renegotiating the city's contract with West County Fire and EMS.
New Contract with Town and Country
In February 2010, a special committee to study the costs of the West County EMS and Fire District met for the first time, according to the minutes of the Fire and EMS Ad Hoc Committee meeting. The contract between the district and the city was coming up for renewal. Throughout the year, the committee met to examine the pros and cons of the cost of renewing its contract with West County EMS and Fire.
Negotiations between the city and West County EMS continued throughout that year. If the city could not reach a deal with West County EMS, the committee proposed other ideas, such as operating its own emergency and fire protection agency.
A deal was finally reached, and on July 25, 2011, the Town and Country board of aldermen approved a new five-year contract with West County EMS. The contract saved the City of Town and Country $2.5 million over the five year period.
"Its been a long journey in negotiating a new five-year contract with the district, but it's been a very rewarding journey," said City Administrator John Copeland in a previous article. "We've had a lot of demands, and they've worked very hard to address those issues."
West County Fire District Layoffs
Kim Bacon was hired in 2008 as the community liaison officer for the West County EMS and Fire Protection District. Bacon had previously worked as a firefighter-paramedic for the California Department of Forestry, and for the City of St. Louis EMS and Fire District. Bacon said she left her job with St. Louis City’s district because of the seemingly bright future of West County's fire district.
“I took less money to go there but it was presented as an opportunity to develop some progressive programs and make a difference in the community,” Bacon said. “They presented a picture they really wanted to start some real progressive campaigns to reach out to the community.”
Bacon said she was shocked when in November, a little over two years after taking her job with West County EMS, she was told the district could no longer afford her.
“I was told that my position was eliminated due to budget cuts. That’s all I was told,” Bacon said. “I later came to understand, as I was requested to train other individuals to pick up my jobs, that other employees of the district would be picking up those jobs.”
Chief Frazier said the cuts were "unfortunate," but the district had to try to keep the emergency and fire services personnel intact, so the administrative positions were the first ones to go. Frazier said other employees are now filling the gaps left by the cuts and have been assigned to some of the administrative duties.
“With the decrease in (property tax) assessment, we were looking at a $300,000 budget deficit in 2011, plus a new contract with Town and Country that will be considerably less,” Frazier said. “The district, that being me, had to make some tough decisions on how to trim things a little bit to reduce personnel that did not affect our fire end emergency services.”
Bacon said she was offered a severance package, but chose not to sign it because of its provisions requiring her not to talk about anything that happened in the district.
“It was ridiculous — to ask me to waive my First Amendment rights for $2,000?” Bacon said. “In about six pages of different adjectives, it said that I ‘Would not defame the district in any way regardless of truth and accuracy of statement.’ I thought that last part was funny.”
Bacon tells Patch she is concerned with the quality of service of the district decreasing as it stretches its jobs thin among its current staff while at the same time making capital improvements.
In November 2008, residents serviced by the West County EMS and Fire Protection District voted in favor of Proposition L, a bond issue that authorized the district to sell $19 million in bonds to fund several capital improvement projects.
The capital projects include several hundred-thousand dollars of improvements to existing facilities, the purchase of new equipment, and the $6.45 million new fire station and training facility located on Manchester Road. Bacon said she understands the capital projects already have their own money appropriated, but is concerned with who is going to run those new facilities.
“Someone’s got to maintain the new facilities,” Bacon said. “They have these multi-million dollar capital improvements, but who is going to be left to work there? That’s a pretty expensive monument sitting on Manchester Road if they can’t operate it. It has the opportunity to be a wonderful tool and training facility, but they have to be able to staff it.”
Bacon said she does not understand why the district signed the contract with Town and Country, but suspects it was to protect some of the fire fighters jobs that could have been lost had the district not signed a new contract with Town and Country.
"So the question here is obviously: ‘You already weren't making money, so what's the benefit of taking a half million dollar cut? What does that mean to tax payers, property owners and the fire district?" Bacon asked.
Chief Frazier said that if the district did not sign the contract with Town and Country, the quality of service would have truly decreased.
“If we didn’t sign it, I would have had a layoff of 20-plus personnel,” Frazier said. “We are very strong and viable right now. No primary emergency or medical personnel will be impacted nor will they be impacted in the future. The jobs we cut are decisions that every business in this economic climate is having to make. As always, emergency takes a priority. The non-emergencies things can be reevaluated.”