The first thing Oakdale Rural Fire Protection District Chief Lee Winton noticed when he took his post at the helm of the rural district was a distressing fact: they were perpetually in the red.
Basically, the costs outstripped the income, leaving a gap in funding by the end of the fiscal year.
But that’s not the case this year. At a recent board meeting, it was discussed where to move the approximately $100,000 that will be carried over into the next fiscal year.
It was a far cry from the usual conversation the board was accustomed to having around this time of year.
Typically, the rural district is given a “loan” from Stanislaus County called “dry period funding” that serves as a way to keep operations going for the few months before the tax assessments roll in. It’s a common enough practice but something Winton wanted to get away from in order to achieve financial security.
“My goal was to get the district to the black at the end of the fiscal year,” Winton said. “But it was going to take real sacrifices to make that happen.”
And with the board’s blessing, Winton set out to make painful cuts, which included measures that had already been set in motion, such as reducing the payroll.
“Seventy-five to eighty-five percent of our budget is in salary and benefits,” Winton said. “Plans had already been set in motion to lay off the limited term employees but we were headed for the red again so we had to lay off three more employees, this time permanent employees.”
By the end of the 2009-2010 fiscal year, light was seen at the end of the tunnel — dim and weak — but promising, just the same.
“We had a little cushion,” Winton said. “But we needed a full fiscal year to see true results.”
Those results, a direct consequence of laying off employees, the collaboration of the joint staffed engine with Oakdale City Fire, and losing one station, were presented at a recent board meeting and met with praise.
ORFD Board Chairwoman Sherry Shlegel said of the district’s recent financial success, “There are still challenges ahead but we have to hand it back to you, Chief.”
Winton said in response, “I’m very pleased with the status of the budget. I feel great about it. The credit goes to the board and the employees. We’ve had to take on some challenging issues. We’re in the black, and I’m thrilled.”
However, Winton cautioned, this is not cause for spending. In fact, more than ever, conservative measures should be taken to ensure the district can take care of any unexpected issues.
“There’s things that happen that you can’t plan for,” Winton said. “Historically, the district has never had any reserve funds. We need to build a modest reserve fund for rainy days. And there are still some challenging decisions on the horizon. People hear that we have money in the bank and they want to know if we’re hiring. We need to be sure we have money for emergencies.”