BARSTOW The Barstow Fire Protection District is projecting no major changes or cuts in its preliminary budget for the next fiscal year, but officials said the district is still in financial trouble.

San Bernardino County has not notified the district that there will be any decrease in property tax revenues from 2008-09 to 2009-10, said fire district Division Chief Sal Corrao. The district will not know until at least October exactly how much of a property tax allocation it will receive from the county for the year, however.

Property taxes make up the vast majority of the district's approximately $3.6 million annual budget.

Fire district board President Paul Courtney said that this year's wave of foreclosures and declining property values will likely represent a hit to the district's revenues in the 2010-11 year.

"Right now, the property taxes being collected are based on what was happening last year," he said.

The preliminary budget, which was approved by the fire board at its meeting Thursday, shows slight increases in salaries and retirement benefits, as well as an approximately 18 percent increase in medical insurance costs.

Office manager Lorraine Barnes said the insurance increase was based on projected 15 to 20 percent increases in the cost of insurance, while the wage increase was based simply on employees moving up to the next step in the district's salary scale and did not include any cost of living increases or raises.

The budget also projected slight revenue increases due to more aggressive collection of the "cost recovery" fees it charges for responding to calls, as well as an increase in the funds passed through from the city's redevelopment agency. It will also see cost savings of $39,500 in the next year since the district finished paying off its station on West Main Street in 2008.

Barnes said the district's priority has been to make sure that all of its 23 full-time employees retain their positions.

"We're glad we have not had to say the word 'pink slip,'" she said.

Although no revenue reductions are currently projected for the next year, Courtney said the district is still struggling due to operating costs that have increased faster than revenues.

He said the district is looking at cost-reduction measures like cutting back on medical benefits and is also considering the possibility of negotiating a partnership or acquisition by either the city of Barstow or San Bernardino County.

The district made policy changes intended to reduce overtime expenses in November of 2008, which allowed the district to close the West Main Street station rather than using overtime hours if sick leave or other issues caused the station's staffing to drop below a two-man crew.

However, since three firefighters have gone out on worker's compensation in the past month and a half, the new policy resulted in the district's station on West Main Street being closed for nearly two weeks straight, with only one engine crew operating out of the Barstow Road station, Corrao said.

The district adjusted its policy last Thursday the day that a major fire struck a mobile home park on East Main Street to require the station on West Main Street to stay open with two people, using overtime hours if necessary.

Contact the writer:
(760) 256-4123 or asewell@desertdispatch.com

Budget figures
$3.61 million: Total revenues/expenditures from final 2008-09 budget
$3.58 million: Total revenues/expenditures from preliminary 2009-10 budget