Fire and medical department surprises Douglas County Commission with plan to reduce its operating budget; leaders have some concerns

photo by: Matt Resnick | Journal-World

Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Chief Rich Llewellyn fields a question on Wednesday, July 5, 2023, the first day of Douglas County's 2024 budget hearings.

The Douglas County Commission’s annual budget hearings opened with a surprise, when Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical disclosed a plan to reduce its operating budget by 5% next year.

County commissioners aren’t yet sure whether it is a pleasant surprise.

The fire and medical department budget is more complex than most because a big portion of the budget is funded by the city of Lawrence to pay for firefighting services the department provides inside the city limits. Douglas County, though, also provides millions to the department for the ambulance service that the department provides countywide.

County commissioners went into the Wednesday budget hearing thinking that the department was seeking $12.1 million in county funding for 2024. Instead, the department is asking for $11.7 million in county funding.

That left commissioners wondering whether county residents should expect a decline in service due to the reduced funding. Fire Chief Rich Llewellyn said he didn’t think that would be the case.

“There were no reductions to front-line operating personnel EMS service,” he said. “Our focus was on maintaining service.”

Douglas County Commissioner Karen Willey said she was left with questions. She noted that the original budget request from fire and medical proposed 20 new positions. Now, the department has done an about-face and is proposing a reduction in operating costs.

“You have a 5% decrease in operational costs, so talk to me about those two ideas, and how they work together,” Willey said.

Commissioners were told the new budget request came forward because it appears the city of Lawrence is unlikely to support the department’s request for new personnel.

“It has been communicated that none of our enhancements are being supported by the city,” McKenzi Ezell, LDCFM data analyst, told county commissioners.

Since the personnel would have been paid for partially by the city and partially by the county, the city’s decision affects the amount of money the department is seeking from the county.

Lawrence city commissioners are in the process of starting their deliberations for the 2024 budget but haven’t yet received City Manager Craig Owens’ budget recommendation. But city departments have started to receive word about what’s included in the budget. Llewellyn said he had attended a budget retreat for City Hall executives last week.

County Commission Chair Patrick Kelly sought to confirm that the city had directed LDCFM to reduce its operations budget by 5%. Llewellyn said that was correct.

“That’s a rough number, but that’s what it equates to,” Llewellyn said.

Kelly said he wanted to know how the reduction will impact county services.

Llewellyn indicated that the cuts will have minimal impact on services rendered, telling Kelly that the department identified necessary areas that “allowed us to maintain services.”

“We looked at an exercise that would reduce our service levels, but that didn’t wind up being necessary,” Llewellyn said.

The budget line-items affecting the county from LDCFM’s proposed budget included the areas of operating expenses, vehicles and equipment, non-capital equipment, software, and education, tuition and training expenses. Cut-back ideas centered on keeping vehicles in LDCFM’s fleet longer than the typical date they would have been rotated out.

“If we extend that and work some of our staff vehicles longer, we can reduce that as a percentage of the annual expense,” Llewellyn said.

The scaling back of training offerings for department personnel was also broached as a cost-saver.

Llewellyn added that additional savings were identified in the area of a previous request submitted for personal protective equipment (PPE). He said that the department is now exploring alternative funding sources to secure the PPE gear.

Willey expressed concern that the department is bringing a very different plan to the county than what was once proposed.

“When did you have access to these numbers, and why are we just now getting them?” Willey asked department officials. Willey said that she typically pores over the pertinent information in advance and was a “little uncomfortable” with the fresh set of data.

“Could this have been sent last night?” Willey asked. “I mean, why are we just getting it now?”

Ezell, the fire and medical data analyst, said that the new proposal was finalized on Monday. Llewellyn apologized for the late notice.

“I believe McKenzi’s intent was to send that (out), but she wound up just sending it to me,” he said. “I apologize for not forwarding that.”

Willey still had concerns, though.

“I’m just not sure how effective we can be in a budget meeting with a new set of thoughts — it’s not just different numbers,” Willey said.

Wednesday was the first day of budget hearings for the county. County Administrator Sarah Plinsky and her staff are proposing a plan that would keep the mill levy flat for 2024. But now county commissioners must decide what they want to change with Plinsky’s recommended budget, and they are holding hearings with a multitude of county departments and outside agencies that receive county funding as part of that process.

Commissioners didn’t make any final budget decisions at Wednesday’s hearings. They did hear from several other departments and agencies. They included: the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, district attorney, district court and Kansas Holistic Defenders.

• Sheriff Jay Armbrister’s pitch centered on the hiring and retention of staff, as well as competitive wages for uniformed staff. Armbrister framed the issue as a lack of applicants caused by low wages in comparison to nearby agencies, which also included the Kansas Highway Patrol. Armbrister indicated that personnel from his agency are being poached, and that the inability to offer competitive wages is hindering his office from filling vacant positions.

According to information submitted by the sheriff’s office for the budget request, the pay package proposal was primarily intended to increase starting pay for entry-level positions. The request includes four options for the pay increase, which would range from $527,000 to $1.24 million.

Kelly asked Armbrister to articulate why he believes his office deserves the pay hike over other county agencies. He asked, “when we think about our Douglas County employees on the whole, what’s the increase to (sheriff’s office personnel) compared to the rest of our staff?”

Armbrister replied that he felt obligated to be an advocate for his staff, just as the County Commission was obligated to be good stewards of the county’s finances.

“I believe that is exactly what you were elected to do — and I was elected to support my staff,” he said. “I am a part of the county; we are taxpayers, and part of this entire overarching government. It’s my job at this point to be selfish — in the fact that I can’t compare my staff to other county entities because they don’t do the work that my staff does.”

• In the discussion with justice system officials, much of the discussion focused on panel attorneys for juvenile cases and whether the current compensation for those attorneys was sufficient or should be adjusted.

Kelly sought clarity on the role of a panel attorney within the county, asking whether “all panel attorneys for those juvenile cases would be paid the same — whether they are from Douglas County Legal Services or not?”

Plinsky added that case loads are “substantially different” now because of juvenile justice system reform efforts. “So I would want to go back and kind of look at some of those issues if we wanted to talk about raising juvenile panel attorney pay,” she said.


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