Tenn. town officials eye cuts to fire protection services, residents push back
Several Signal Mountain residents said they were willing to pay higher taxes to keep the department staffed at current levels
By Ellen Gerst
Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Facing a potential $1.5 million budget deficit, Signal Mountain officials are considering cuts to the town's Fire Department.
The department has more funding and staff than any other of a similar population size in the area, according to data shared at a Monday night Town Council meeting.
Before next year's budget is finalized in June, department heads have been asked to make cuts, Councilman Andrew Gardner said at Monday's meeting. High rates of inflation, increased pay for town staff and catching up on investments and infrastructure have all contributed to the deficit, Gardner said.
On Friday, the town's fire chief gave notice he plans to retire at the end of the month, and its parks director also resigned the same day.
Around 90 people packed the meeting room Monday, many there to speak in support of the Fire Department.
Several said they were willing to pay higher taxes to keep the department staffed at current levels. High-quality public services like the Fire Department draw residents to Signal Mountain, some said.
"If there's anything I'd rather pay more for, it's that," said mountain resident Sandy Bayless, to applause from the standing-room-only crowd.
Word of the potential cuts circulated on social media over the weekend, after the Signal Mountain firefighters' union posted on Facebook on Friday saying department staff were told their budget may be cut in half.
"A lot of what you're seeing and a lot of what you're reading about on social media posts are overreactions by people who don't know anything," Signal Mountain Mayor Charlie Poss said by phone Monday, "because they weren't at the meeting. There were only three people there."
Poss emphasized Monday that no decisions have been made on next year's budget, which has not been drafted yet.
Fire Chief Eric Mitchell, who joined the department in 2013, handed in his official notice of retirement Monday, after notifying the town manager Friday he planned to retire. His last day will be April 1, he said.
"I had not planned on it (retiring), I'll put it that way," Mitchell said by phone Monday. "It's just time."
Parks Director Jarred Thompson also gave notice of resignation, effective immediately, on Friday, according to Town Manager Elaine Brunelle. Thompson could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Mitchell said he was given a dollar amount by which he is expected to cut the department's budget. He declined to specify the amount Monday.
"I haven't put pen to paper yet, but it would be a significant number of people," he said.
Mitchell said the suggested budget cuts would hurt not only the Fire Department, but also the residents it serves.
"Reducing staffing reduces the department's ability to respond to calls," Mitchell said. "I can't say for sure, but it could result in the closing of a station. That's a significant impact for the folks that live out there, wherever that station closes."
Residents speaking Monday said they worried that cutting fire staff would increase response times and said they were particularly concerned about medical calls for severe allergic reactions or cardiac arrests during which every minute counts.
Poss, the mayor, said he recently met with Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp about possibly expanding county ambulance service to the mountain.
Most other similarly sized fire departments in the region rely at least partly on part-time or volunteer firefighters, data from the town shows.
Signal Mountain is also an outlier when it comes to the size of its budget — about 30% of its roughly $9 million annual spending goes to the Fire Department. That amounts to $281 for each of its approximately 8,800 residents, according to town data, the highest in the area. Chattanooga is second, with 19% of its budget going to fire, or around $259 per city resident.
Signal Mountain added its second fire station in 2018, a roughly $2.8 million project aimed at improving fire response in the northern part of town. At the same time, with the help of a federal staffing grant, the department hired nine new firefighters to staff the station.
Losing staff — and potentially a station — could lower the department's insurance rating, which would raise yearly rates for homeowners in the area.
The department has already had a hard time keeping staff thanks to relatively low pay for the area, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported in 2021. The town raised taxes at the time to fund raises for firefighters and other city employees, Vice Mayor Elizabeth Baker said, but some employees were still left underpaid while others were overpaid.
The department, which has 29 full-time employees, answered 1,125 calls in 2022, according to Signal Mountain's annual State of the Town report. That's about three per day. Just 3% of those were fire-related, the report says, and 64% were medical or rescue calls.
A September 2022 study found that while adding Station 2 helped improve response times, there are still areas of Signal Mountain outside the "optimal response zone ... resulting in long response times."
Signal Mountain's firefighters are the only round-the-clock department on the mountain, while Walden and Lone Oak in Sequatchie County also have volunteer crews. A growing population in unincorporated parts of the county surrounding Signal Mountain also adds to the department's load, since it's obligated to lend mutual aid assistance to nearby areas, officials said.
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