County commissioners at budget hearing have questions about plan to reduce staff at Lawrence fire and medical department

photo by: Josie Heimsoth/Journal-World

Douglas County commissioners meet Monday morning, July 8, 2024, at the Douglas County Public Works building for the first day of the 2025 budget hearings.

The Douglas County Commission’s budget hearings opened with many questions regarding a proposed decrease in firefighter staff and the departments’ station expansion project.

County commissioners, at their first hearing for the 2025 budget on Monday morning, asked Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical representatives to discuss the recommendations of reducing staff on firetrucks and other cuts.

As the Journal-World reported, LDCFM has presented the City Commission with the plan to decrease staffing levels from four firefighters required on a truck to three. The shift in requirements doesn’t necessarily imply layoffs, although a memo from Fire Chief Rich Llewellyn to County Administrator Sarah Plinsky suggested that anywhere from seven to nine positions would be cut through attrition or other means.

The potential cuts have raised concerns with the local firefighters union as the cuts would come at the same time the department plans to construct additional stations in Lawrence. Commissioner Shannon Reid asked LDCFM why their standards of coverage have changed despite there being an increase in emergency calls over the past year.

“The reduction of assigned staff is not a direction that I want to go in,” Llewellyn said. But Llewellyn said it can be difficult to bounce back and forth from city and county commissions to make funding decisions like this.

The city of Lawrence contributes a majority of the fire and medical department budget to fund firefighting services within the city limits. Douglas County, though, allocates millions to the department for its countywide ambulance services.

Additionally, according to a budget request, LDCFM is anticipating ordering three ambulances with two for normal replacement cycles and another for the department’s station expansion project. Due to the rapid growth in the northwestern portion of the city, the department is wanting to open additional fire stations and other resources to provide reliable, effective response coverage, consistent with other areas of the city. Commissioner Karen Willey asked if asking for additional ambulance vehicles would be something on the budget every year.

Kevin Joles, division chief of emergency medical services division, said they would only ask for the additional ambulance this year and not next year. His concern is if they don’t begin to order ambulances now ahead of the project, the ambulance replacement program may not be on schedule.

Commissioners didn’t make any final budget decisions at Monday’s hearings. In addition to LDCFM and emergency services, they heard from the Douglas County District Court, the district attorney, Kansas Holistic Defenders, criminal justice services, the county treasurer and the county clerk.

* Willey asked about the county appraiser department’s dedicated vehicle, a 2017 Ford Escape that is 7.5 years old and has 50,000 miles. The vehicle is shared between 10 appraisers and with further staff increases and the vehicle’s age, the department would prepare to purchase a vehicle in five to eight years.

The department has requested $7,200 per year to save in a reserve account, which began mid-2024, for the vehicle.

* In a discussion with Chief Judge James McCabria, Reid asked about why it would be necessary to appoint a staff research attorney. The position is not included in the recommended budget and would come with a cost of $89,371.

McCabria said the staff attorney would take legal research and other documents attorneys turn in and synthesize it for the judges for a more efficient process.

Plinksy began the first day of hearings with a presentation overviewing the proposed $206 million budget for calendar year 2025.

As the Journal-World reported, the proposed 2025 budget also includes a flat mill levy – one mill is one dollar per $1,000 of assessed value – of 44.208 mills.

The county’s property values, however, haven’t remained flat. Commissioners were told the county’s assessed valuation — the total taxable value of all property in the county — increased by 6.8% from a year ago. That increase in property valuations will mean that many homeowners will see an increase in their property tax bills, despite the mill levy remaining unchanged.

The County Commission will convene from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesday and Wednesday to continue the budget hearings. The public can attend in person or by using Zoom. Meeting information and recordings of the hearings will be available on the county website. Commissioners will begin deliberations at 9 a.m. on Friday, July 12, where commissioners can begin adjusting the recommended mill levy based on projects commissioners want to include or exclude from the budget.

The budget will be finalized during a public hearing scheduled for the County Commission meeting on Aug. 28. To view the proposed budget, visit https://dgcoks.gov/open-budget.

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