Lack of spills puts haz-mat team in budget bind

City agrees to kick in $6,012.50 toward deficit, will budget more

There were three hazardous material spills in the Northwest Colorado area last year -- five less than what it would take to make the Craig Rural Fire Protection District Haz-Mat team self-sufficient.

That's good and bad news, Craig City Council member Bill Johnston said Tuesday night.

Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties have had fewer than the expected number of toxic spills, but the city and county, per a 1999 agreement with the Fire District, are required to make up any haz-mat team budget deficit.

Johnston excused himself from voting on his own request for $6,012.50 from the Craig City Council. As the assistant fire chief and haz-mat chief, he answered the council's questions about the deficit.

In 1998, when the team was formed, Moffat County was seeing an average of eight hazardous materials spills a year and the Colorado State Patrol haz-mat teams were unable to respond within a reasonable amount of time. The need for a local team was established and a budget was created using the average number of calls.

Each time a spill occurs, the responsible party is billed for the clean-up. That cost has historically ranged from $2,000 to $8,000 -- the average being $3,000.

Eight spills and aggressive attempts at grant dollars were expected to fully fund the haz-mat team.

Johnston said the Fire District has been successful in obtaining grant dollars, but the decreased number of spills created a projected $12,000 shortfall for 2004.

"The team has $600,000 in equipment using the original money and grants," Johnston said. "We've done very much with very little."

Originally, the city and county each contributed $50,000 toward the creation of a local haz-mat team and the Fire District kicked in $25,000 plus the administrative costs of managing the team and the equipment.

The team was established with these funds matched against a Department of Local Affairs grant and was set up to be self-sufficient.

That's still the goal, Johnston said.

"I truly would like to see this team be self-sufficient," Johnston said.

But that depends completely on call volume.

The Craig Rural Fire Protection District haz-mat team has the largest service area in the state -- 11,000 square miles -- and the lowest volume of calls. It is the designated emergency response agency for all of Moffat County and responds to spills in Routt and Rio Blanco counties.

"We've had calls, but not the volume we calculated to run the team on," Johnston said.

Last year the Fire District contributed $12,000 to make up for the budget shortfall.

Equipment is a high start-up cost for a haz-mat team, but federal requirements for technician certification and health are yearly expenditures. The team is budgeted to spend more than $7,000 in 2004 on the required physicals and another $7,000 in training. Those costs are exceeded only by the team's $9,000 payroll.

The haz-mat team is budgeted to spend $39,276 in 2004 and expects to see $27,251 in revenues.

That could change if more than the five calls budgeted for are received.

The council agreed unanimously to the funding request and agreed to put a line item in its budget to cover future shortfalls.

"That's why we signed the (memorandum of understanding) and I think we need to stand by that agreement and budget this," Councilor Don Jones said.

The money will come from a $25,000 council contingency fund.

"This is a pretty valid and important thing," Mayor Dave DeRose said.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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