First Fire Co., West Chester

Nearly 40 years ago, the Borough of West Chester banded together with East Bradford, West Goshen, Westtown, Birmingham, and Thornbury to form one of the area’s first “regionalized” fire departments. It’s a process that makes sense, one could even argue is necessary, considering the vast overhead of a fire company, even an all-volunteer fire company like West Chester’s. Since then, the participating municipality managers and West Chester Fire Company leadership have come together to create and present a collaborative budget for the department that protects 57,000 residents annually.

Typically a rather routine affair, this week’s presentation left Borough Council members with what looks like another budgetary challenge for the new year. Under the new proposed five-year budget, costs of fire services in the Borough will increase nearly 25 percent next year – although some of that increase may be paid in in-kind services.  

Breakdown of the share of services between the six municipalities supported by the WCFD

That’s high. Are costs going up everywhere?  No. For half the participating municipalities costs are actually going down for 2024. Costs are also rising in West Goshen and Westtown Townships but by a much smaller margin than seen in West Chester. West Goshen will see a 2.63 percent increase under the proposed budget. Westtown a 6.77 percent increase.

So, why is West Chester seeing such a large increase?  That isn’t entirely clear. In 1984 when the alliance was created a formula for cost sharing was established. That formula takes into consideration the municipality’s assessed property value and its call volume. 

“The method for calculating the price shares is unchanged from the previous contract but we got much different results this time around,” Borough Manager Sean Metrick told council members during his presentation on Tuesday evening.  

In 2019, the first (and last) time a five-year fire budget plan was presented West Chester paid 35.7 percent of all departmental costs. This time around the calculations dictate the Borough pay over 40 percent of costs. The shift is due to a significant increase in the Borough’s assessed property values in relation to the other municipalities.

Interestingly, despite all this “new development” the Borough’s percentage of call volume has not changed. The 2019 budget estimated West Chester accounted for 51.8 percent of the call volume based on previous years’ volume. In this budget, West Chester is allocated 51.76 percent of the calls.

Do we know why the Borough’s assessed value went up so significantly? No. There has been, of course, some new development over the last five years but nothing that seems to provide an obvious answer for the increase – or at least not that Borough officials are saying at this time. I can’t tell you why it’s so much higher,” Mr. Metrick told Council. “We have some ideas but nothing has been verified yet.”Resident Darrell Cook had an idea. “How much has West Chester University contributed for fire services over the last 5, 10, 20 years?” he asked. 

Bottom line – what kind of increase are we looking at?  Ok, well here’s the good news. It doesn’t look like the increase will have to be paid entirely in dollars. As it turns out each year the Borough administration does a lot of work in support of the Fire Department. Things like filing disability claims, accounting support, and grant writing. These services which are estimated at roughly $57,000/year were not previously being paid back to the Borough. Under the new contract, they will be. With these services factored in, the bottom line increase drops to $43,277, or just over 10 percent. 

Estimated capital expenses over the next 20 years. Yellow bar represents an additional yearly payment made toward future expenses.

That sounds a little more reasonable. Anything else I should know? Yeah, that only covers the operating budget, not capital expenses, or equipment costs, and – “Major equipment is the biggest expense of volunteer fire companies,” the report reminds us. 

Knowing that smaller vehicles typically need to be replaced every 10 years and the larger vehicles, “the heavies,” every 20 years, the leadership took the wise step and mapped out all planned capital expenses for the next twenty years. With everything from Boat 53-1 to Ladder 53 assigned a replacement date, the department now has a pretty good idea of upcoming expenses. Looking at that replacement schedule the next five years should be light in terms of capital expenses.

This is a potential lifesaver for next year’s budget, except the leadership got another bright idea – pay now against future capital expenses. “It’s a low capital expense cycle but we have three big contract cycles staring us in the face down the road,” said Mr. Metrick. Thus the joint leadership is suggesting the municipalities all pony up and pay an additional $82,440/year as a down payment on future expenses. While they wait to be used, the extra funds can be kept in a prime yield account earning interest currently around 5.46 percent annually.  

Makes sense for those municipalities facing a decreased payment. So, what’s next for us? First, this is just a draft budget so there is still time for adjustments to be made. It was suggested the formula be adjusted so fixed costs are assessed equally across municipalities while variable costs fluctuate by usage. Although, it is not likely this approach would be supported by the smaller municipalities. It was also suggested the amount that is paid down on capital expenses could be lowered at least until the Borough gets adjusted to its new increased fire budget. “You have a hard decision to find out where the dollars should go,” Mr. Metrick told Council on Tuesday. 

Is there a silver lining here? Sure. Remember, it is an all-volunteer fire company. Otherwise, these numbers would all be much higher. Discussions will continue next month as Borough Council begins to review 2024 department budgets.

Originally published, Aug. 18, 2023

This story is part of a longer weekly West Chester newsletter. Curious what else is going on? You can find the full issue here and the latest newsletter here. Even easier? Subscribe here to get the future issues delivered directly.

One thought on “The Rising Price of Safety: West Chester Faces a 25% Increase for Fire Services

  1. About assessed values: I wonder how they are compared, since the County hasn’t done an assessment in about 35 years. And West Chester’s values are increasingly in modern apartment buildings; what is the record of fire department involvement there compared to single homes?

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