The Bluffdale Fire Department has gone through some changes over the past decade but still has a long way to go to become a full force.
The department started with volunteers until Bluffdale hired its first full-time manager in 2012. Although the growing city of nearly 20,000 has created another full-time senior position in the department, the force continues to consist primarily of part-time frontline firefighters who could be called to another assignment should a disaster event occur. They are in the department’s departments Municipalities and worked there full-time.
To change that, Bluffdale created a Fire and Police Protection Fund, a separate special district, and authorized a 27 percent increase in the city’s share of property taxes to strengthen its public safety presence. The proposed increase would amount to an additional $8.27 per month for a $630,000 home. And from now on, 100% of the city’s property taxes will go into this special fund.
“These improvements result in a significant financial obligation that must be paid each year,” Mayor Natalie Hall said in a newsletter. “A stable, consistent source of funding is critical to meeting these costs.”
But just like last year, when the city proposed a 31% property tax increase to hire full-time firefighters and allow for pay increases for police officers, a grassroots group called Bluffdale Citizens for Responsible Taxation requested a referendum on the fall vote to pass the increase impede.
Bluffdale officials and group members expressed frustration at public meetings over the proposed tax increase. City leaders argued that extra money was needed to fund improved services, and opponents insisted budget cuts elsewhere could cover the costs.
“Since the tax increase only goes to the limited public security fund,” the mayor’s letter reads, “signing a referendum against the tax increase is like voting to fund our police and fire departments.”
Group member Tammy Rasmussen explained that after the City Council approved the earlier tax increase, she and her colleagues saw “many spots in the budget” where money could be shifted.
In 30 days, they collected 1,565 signatures, more than enough to put their initiative on the 2022 ballot. In the end, almost 69% of voters approved the referendum and the tax hike failed.
“The money is here”
Rasmussen said it appears the city hasn’t been paying attention to voters since that election. The group acknowledges that firefighters have been underpaid for years, but would like to fix this problem by reorganizing spending, rather than raising taxes.
“The money is in the budget,” she said. “But they choose not to make emergency services a top priority.”
Property taxes don’t raise enough money to cover all public safety expenses, Rasmussen said, so the city still has to draw on its general funds.
“Now, with this so-called special fund, they can continue to ensure that the emergency services are not the top priority,” she said. “And they can spend money from the general fund.”
She argues Bluffdale could cut costs for events, fireworks and outdoor youth programs, for example, to prioritize emergency services without raising taxes. Although some of these programs are embraced by residents, public safety “should never be used as bait” to justify higher taxes, Rasmussen said.
“It’s only appropriate to raise taxes,” she said, “when you’ve looked absolutely everywhere and turned over every stone and cut corners wherever you went and are absolutely out of money.”
“We are at a turning point”
At a truth-finding hearing this month, a majority of the city council approved the tax increase. Council members explained that some funds flow to the city for specific purposes and other expenses, such as the rainy day fund, can be used for one-off payments, but cannot guarantee a steady flow of cash for ongoing expenses such as salaries.
“Every department we have is scarce and not fully funded,” Councilor Wendy Aston said. “…We are at a tipping point where we need to either deliver the service or turn to a contractor to provide it for us.”
Councilor Jeff Gaston said he would not vote to accept the final tax rate, citing residents who opposed it.
When the referendum passed in 2022, Bluffdale had to cut its budget, noted Bruce Kartchner, the city’s executive director. That meant cuts in city events, recreational activities, and improvements in technology — including the firing of an events coordinator.
It was the only way for the city to pay for the bonuses and 9% raise to bring a firefighter’s starting wage to $15.17 an hour.
Though the 27 percent increase in the city’s share of property taxes may seem large, Kartchner said the dollar amount is fairly small since Bluffdale has one of the lowest tax rates in the Salt Lake Valley.
“The city is trying to be prudent with our spending,” he said. “It’s not that we take tax increases lightly.”
Fire chief warning
If this tax increase continues, wages would be paid for six full-time firefighters and a 5% pay rise for part-time workers.
The police department, which works with Saratoga Springs in Utah County, would receive money for targeted promotions and market-driven pay increases.
Without the higher pay, Bluffdale Fire Chief Matt Evans warned that in the event of an earthquake or other major emergency, the city’s fire stations would be left empty because their part-time workers would be called away to their full-time jobs.
“But if we hire those six people,” he said, “we’d have at least six people dedicated to Bluffdale and here to help us.”
The fire department currently has a full-time fire chief and a captain who also acts as emergency manager. The remaining roles are part-time, including three battalion chiefs, 12 captains, seven lieutenants and 47 firefighters.
Evans pointed out that the 2022 ballot simply asked voters whether they were for or against a tax hike, with no context as to its purpose.
“The citizens have asked us to create a separate budget. We’ve done that now, but [opponents] I still want to table a referendum,” Evans said. “When these people fight it, they don’t really support public safety, police and fire departments.”
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America Corps member and writes for The Salt Lake Tribune on the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. Her donation to complement our RFA grant helps ensure she continues to write stories like this. Please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking Here.