Troubled fire district's debt slowly receding

Concerns remain about staffing levels

The response to a washed-away tour bus July 28 figured into this week's discussion of the Lake Mohave Ranchos Fire District. (Courtesy)

The response to a washed-away tour bus July 28 figured into this week's discussion of the Lake Mohave Ranchos Fire District. (Courtesy)

KINGMAN - A much smaller Lake Mohave Ranchos Fire District may be out of debt by July 2015, but some residents told the Mohave County Board of Supervisors that they're worried that cuts in district staffing are endangering lives.

District Administrator John Flynn was hired by the Board to take over the fire district in February after the district found itself unable to pay its employees or a $450,000 line of credit due to Wells Fargo Bank. He cut staffing levels to the bare bones in order to pull the district out of debt.

"It's unacceptable for the district to operate at this level," said White Hills resident Mark Shaver. "We've dodged some major bullets."

He pointed to a recent accident where a bus was swept off of Pierce Ferry Road by floodwaters. Shaver said he was at the accident scene and it took four hours for emergency responders to get there. The first two

responders who arrived couldn't do anything because they didn't have any equipment.

"(Staffing levels) need to be readdressed," he said. "You cannot sacrifice the safety of people."

Northern Arizona Consolidated Fire District Chief Patrick Moore disagreed with Shaver's version of events in a Tuesday afternoon phone call.

"The dispatch center first got the call around 1:15 p.m.," he said. The first rescue vehicles from Lake Mohave Ranchos Fire District were on the scene at around 1:30 p.m. Pierce Ferry Road is about 10 miles outside of Dolan Springs.

Vehicles from Northern Arizona Consolidated Fire District arrived down stream from the bus on Stockton Hill Road around 2 p.m., and by 2:20 p.m. all of the bus' passengers were on dry land.

"I know. I was there," Moore said. "It may have taken four hours to get a new bus there to pick those people up."

Even if the Dolan Springs station had 10 people on staff at the time of the accident as it did before the county took over the district, it wouldn't have made a difference in the response times or how the accident was handled, he said.

Ladonna Cypriot from Dolan Springs said she called the fire department for an ambulance for her dying husband on Jan. 27. When the ambulance arrived, the paramedic appeared inexperienced.

"He just stood there by the door to the ambulance and told me to get a list of my husband's medications," Cypriot said. "My husband wasn't breathing. He died before they got to the fire department."

If the Dolan Springs station was fully staffed, her husband may not have survived, she said, "but there would have been someone there who could have helped him."

Another Dolan Springs resident said she called 911 after experiencing chest pain and waited 45 minutes for an ambulance to arrive from White Hills.

Moore pointed out on Tuesday that both of those calls happened in January before Flynn was hired as the district's administrator. He said he didn't want to dispute the residents' claims at Monday's meeting because it wasn't the right time or place.

"That's not what we were there for," he said.

A community meeting in the Dolan Springs area to discuss the Lake Mohave Ranchos Fire District's finances is set for the beginning of September.

Flynn said he understood the community's concerns about staff, but a decision has to be made - how fast do the supervisors want to pull the district out of debt?

The majority of the district's expenses were related to labor, Flynn said. If the Board of Supervisors wanted to increase staffing at the stations, he could do that, but it also would take longer to pay off the district's debts.

The credit line from Wells Fargo wasn't the only debt the district had to pay off, he said. The district also had $147,000 in outstanding bills and more than $97,000 in other debts.

"There were significant variations in how the district's budget was created and the amount of tax revenue they were bringing in," Flynn said.

The district's governing board overestimated the amount of money the district would take in from taxes, he said. It budgeted for nearly $2 million in tax revenues and collected nearly $777,000.

The district board didn't budget for people not paying their taxes, he said. If the district collected 100 percent of the property tax revenues due to it in the last half of this year, it would collect around $293,000, but Flynn expects 20 percent of the property owners not to pay their taxes.

In order to move the district back toward solvency, he cut staff to the bare minimum needed to run both the Dolan Springs and Meadview stations; fired the district's fire chief, Mark Hruz; demoted a battalion chief; and signed an agreement with Northern Arizona Consolidated Fire District to provide management services.

The move saved the district $185,00 in personnel costs, he said.

Flynn also outsourced bill collection for the district's ambulance service and sold anything in the district that wasn't putting fuel in the fire trucks' tanks, necessary to repairing the trucks or providing a service to the community.

He also eliminated service to all calls that are outside of the district's boundaries.

The district is currently waiting on more than $400,000 in Medicare/Medicaid payments for ambulance services, Flynn said. And all tax revenues collected by the district have gone to paying off the Wells Fargo line of credit. Flynn expects to cut the amount of money due to Wells Fargo from its current level of $204,000 to $185,000 by November.

The district has been operating off of a $150,000 loan from Mohave County and will probably end up borrowing more from the county until the Wells Fargo credit line is paid off, he said.

Flynn also pointed out that even after the district pays off all of its debts, it would be unlikely that district would ever have as many firefighters as it did in 2012.

The district had at least 10 firefighters at the Dolan Springs station, Moore said.

"It's just not sustainable with the amount of income they're bringing in," Flynn told the Board.