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Union questions district's budget

Mehlville Fire Protection District union firefighters and paramedics recently expressed their concerns about the district's current financial situation, especially the general fund.

About two dozen members of Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, including the union's Executive Board, represented employees at the district's Board of Directors Sept. 22 meeting. Local 889 President Chris Francis said union members want to better understand the "figures" that the district has presented in its financial reports.

Union members are concerned, he said, that the general fund of the amended fiscal 2003 budget shows expenditures totaling $10.3 million, but the general fund's Jan. 1, 2003, balance of $8.6 million lasts only until about October when the fire district begin "borrowing from next year's money" to cover the roughly $800,000 remaining in 2003 expenses.

Despite district reports that there is 10 months of funding remaining in reserve, Francis said he did not believe that was an accurate statement.

Chief Ray Haddock said that the money simply is reported differently, on a cash basis for the treasurer's report, and on an accrual basis for the budget.

"Mine is the simplicity method," Haddock said. "I'm not saying it's right or wrong, I'm just saying in November — in October, we're reporting in November with the cash method," Haddock said.

Comptroller Jeff Geisler explained that the chief was looking at the numbers from a "cash-in-the-bank" standpoint, while the union was looking at a "cash-in-the-bank, minus paying all the bills to the people you owe money to" because the district always owes the past two weeks' payroll to its employees, as well as accrued vacation time and other past bills, still unpaid.

"I consider it this way," Geisler explained. "If, in fact, the district — if you were to close the district and close up shop, or if the county got consolidated, if we paid everybody the money that was due to them, would we have the money to do it? And presently, we have the money to do it and probably about one month left over, depending on when it would occur. If you paid the vacation and paid the salaries out to everybody, there's not a whole lot left over in the general fund ...''

Geisler continued, "... The thing with the district is ... we receive all of our revenues at one time, and then we have to make it through the dry spell, so to say, for 10 months. We don't really get anything in other than permit revenues or some investment income, which isn't very large. In contrast, when you have municipalities or school districts, you get sales tax money that comes in regularly, every month you get a nice big check.

"We don't get that. We get it all up front, and then we have to manage our money to make sure that we make it all the way through until we get our money again. So basically, our fund balance says that we have ... around one month left over. You know, accounting standards say that they recommend you have a minimum of two months' fund balance, if not more, at the bare minimum. In the general fund, we don't have that,'' Geisler said.

While the district's other funds may be accumulating more money than needed, the general fund is not, Francis said. He said his point was to look at ways of in-creasing the district's revenue.

The treasurer's report, which was presented earlier during the meeting, stated the general fund balance as of Aug. 31 was $4,103,213 and the ambulance fund balance was $1,579,037, for a total of about $5.7 million.

District officials calculated that typical monthly disbursements for the general fund — about $858,000 — plus monthly disbursements for the ambulance fund — about $421,000 — add up to about $1.2 million or $1.3 million. Multiplying this times the four months left in the year equals less than $5.2 million, which is less than the $5.7 million left in the two funds.

Board Chairman Tom O'Driscoll said, "... So just on the face of that, we're not spending next year's tax money. We're about $400,000 over, and assuming that what we owed people is not more than that ..."

However, Geisler said that the district owes about $1.2 million or $1.3 million in payroll and vacation already earned by employees. That is the $800,000 shortfall to which Francis was referring, he said.

Besides the general fund, Geisler said the district's sick leave reserve fund has about $1.9 million remaining this year, while the district owes about $2.4 million.

Board Treasurer Dan Ottoline said, "It's monthly ongoing."

Francis replied that at the end of the year in December, the district was short.

"Guys, believe me, I'm not trying to argue points or anything else,'' Francis said. "All I'm saying is we need to look at ways of increasing our revenue, and I don't know if the chief has a plan, if Jeff has a plan, if the board has a plan, of different ideas to kick around. Again, that's one of the reasons to have this meeting ..."

O'Driscoll interjected, "Do you guys have a plan?"

Employees have some ideas, Francis said, and welcomed all to sit around the table and discuss those ideas.

O'Driscoll said that such a discussion would not take place that night, but he would be glad to do so another time.

"We appreciate your thoughts. We will welcome any thoughts you have on revenue-producing ideas," he said.

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