By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
Fire Chief Jim Walkowski’s resignation wasn’t really a big surprise.
Unprecedented decreases in revenue to the largest fire department in Lewis County have had them struggling for months with where and how to make cuts while hoping to maintain some semblance of the emergency response services they provide.
Riverside Fire Authority, which protects a population of 28,000 spanning more than 180 square miles in and around Centralia, last year operated with a budget of $4.6 million. This year it’s $3.9 million. Next year pencils out to be as low as $3.1 million.
And the following year, they are forecast to lose a little bit more before the situation might level off.
“We are going to struggle for the next three to five years,” Riverside Firefighter Rick LeBoeuf said. “We’re going to be a very bare bones department.”
The primary reason is the change in taxes contributed by TransAlta’s power plant, as it winds down operations in anticipation of future closure. The details of just how quickly those amounts would drop hit the fire agency unexpectedly last fall.
But there’s more.
There’s the hit caused by the recession and the general decline in property values, according to Walkowski who has led the organization for eight years.
“Also, starting next year, the fire authority will be subject to tax pro-rating,” Walkowski said.
He described that as a potential loss of up to 15 cents of the current $1.50 per thousand dollars of assessed property value it collects for its fire levy, related to how property taxes are allocated to the various taxing districts such as themselves, schools and libraries.
“The bottom line is, we have to do some pretty drastic things to maintain service,” Walkowski said.
And the bleakness doesn’t end there.
Because Riverside’s labor contract with its firefighters calls for layoffs first to those hired last, it turns out it’s the firefighter-paramedics they are losing.
Letting go of paramedics threatens their ability to meet their obligation to a response-sharing agreement with AMR, the local private ambulance service, according to Walkowski. The loss of that arrangement would affect not only Riverside, but the Chehalis Fire Department and four fire districts west of the Twin Cities who participate, he said.
“If we continue to lose people at the bottom, we are going to have very significant issues in our community,” Walkowski said.
The now 45-year-old former fire chief from Bainbridge Island arrived in 2006 as the Centralia Fire Department and its neighbor Lewis County Fire District 12 were undergoing a merging process. District 12’s then Chief Mike Kytta stepped down and was made an assistant chief.
From the city side, Rick Mack was made assistant chief and fire marshal.
In 2008, its consolidation into Riverside Fire Authority was the first of its kind – between a city department and fire district – in the state.
Last year, the organization was operating with 27 firefighters and more than 40 active volunteers.
It is on track to lose six paid personnel this year, and more after that.
The paid firefighters have made concessions and didn’t take the pay raise this year they were due under their contract, according to LeBoeuf, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 451.
The three chiefs took voluntary pay cuts of seven percent.
Tom Davidson, president of Riverside’s six-member board of commissioners, said he wasn’t entirely surprised last week when Walkowski asked the board to lay him off.
The board had previously decided one of the top three administrators would lose their job, but they wanted Walkowski to stay, according to Davidson. Walkowski had told the board it should be him to be let go, the one with least seniority, and that he would seek other job opportunities.
“At our last meeting, the last week in March, we hadn’t made any decision,” Davidson said. “I guess he decided to make the decision for us.”
Walkowski resigned on Wednesday.
“It’s a tough decision, it wasn’t in anyone’s plan to do this,” Walkowski said. “You have to do everything you can to lean out the organization.”
Walkowski says his annual salary of roughly $105,500 will save one and half paramedics. LeBoeuf and Davidson said with his resume, he was the one out of the three chiefs who could secure a new position easily, and almost anywhere.
Walkowski’s contract with Riverside doesn’t expire until 2015. The specific details of the consequences of breaking it early haven’t been worked out.
LeBoeuf said when he learned Thursday morning the chief had a new job in the Spokane area, he congratulated him.
“Chief Walkowski is not jumping ship, he’s leaving to help our organization sustain itself, we need our management cut,” LeBoeuf said. “And being the good person he is, he didn’t want Rick Mack or Mike Kytta to lose their job.”
The outgoing chief’s legacy will probably be his excellent communication skills, his care for the community and wanting the best for the citizens, LeBoeuf said. But most of all, for the kind of relationship he created between top management and the workers, he said.
“There’s an old saying, a good leader can get people to move mountains,” he said. “That’s what Chief Walkowski did, he could get people to come to work and give 110 percent to their job.”
He’s scheduled to begin work May 1 at Spokane County Fire District 9 based in Mead, a department with two assistant chiefs, almost 70 firefighters and 100 volunteers. He will be assistant chief in charge of operations and training.
“Jim was the unanimous first choice for all of us,” District 9’s Administrative Services Director Chris Hamp said. “We think we have a pretty good organization here, so we’re anxious to get him on board.”
Davidson said he predicts the board will appoint Kytta as chief next month, since he was chief before.
The organization will be asking citizens to support a new levy on Aug. 9.
For background, read “Chief Walkowski hired by Spokane area fire department” from Thursday April 3, 2014, here