Firefighters object to cuts in grants for departments

Friday, October 2, 2009

Firefighters from several volunteer departments went to the Marshall County Commission meeting Monday night to protest the reduction of matching grants to their departments.

Last year, county commissioners appropriated $4,500 for each volunteer fire department that raised that much money on its own. This year, the appropriation is to be $1,500 - a $3,000 reduction.

Before last year, matching grants had been $3,000, according to financial leaders on the commission and in the Courthouse Annex. Even earlier, the matching grants were $1,500.

"What's more important than a volunteer fire department?" County Commissioner Scottie Poarch said among several volunteers after the regular monthly meeting of the county commission.

Firefighter Tony Burgess sounded another point made by other firefighters attending.

"We're putting our lives on the line," Burgess said.

And that risk is done without compensation, he and other firefighters said.

Still, several county leaders have explained that while the grants are being cut to a third of what they were last year, the county continues to pay for rural departments' utilities, fuel, insurance for the firefighters and other aspects of department basics.

That has been reported as averaging some $1,500 per department each year.

"Volunteer fire departments do a heck of a job, but we had to cut the budget," Commissioner Wilford "Spider" Wentzel said Tuesday evening when asked about the firefighters' attending the commission meeting on Monday.

Wentzel, a member of the County Commission's Budget Committee, added that reductions throughout the budget were seen as necessary as the recession has reduced county revenue due to lower sales tax collections and lower property tax payments, the latter because of bankruptcies and foreclosures.

"It could boil down to that (reduced spending) or a property tax rate hike," Wentzel said.

Commissioners are maintaining the county's property rate at $3.09 per $100 of assessed value for homes and businesses.

Meanwhile, the decision affects municipal departments, even if it's only because they enjoy mutual aid agreements for the security of each jurisdiction that, to some extent, is only as well protected as he next department's availability if there are two fires at the same time.

Speaking about the $3,000 reduction in the county grants, Chapel Hill Fire Department Chief Kenneth Runk commented: "It takes no time to spend money on fire equipment...

"I mean, $4,500 is nothing.," Runk said. "I took a truck to a shop to get it fixed and it cost $8,000 for simple repairs, and that's two years" worth of county grants.

"It's ... specialized equipment," he said.

"It takes a hefty truck to carry water," Runk said, explaining, "A gallon of water weighs just short of nine pounds and if you've got a 1,000-gallon truck that's 9,000 pounds, not including the weight of the truck and the equipment."

An empty truck weighs about seven tons.

"My big tanker is 3,000 gallons," Runk said.

However, as a municipal department, Chapel Hill's fire fighters and their equipment are "probably in better shape" because of the municipality, the chief said. "All our utility bills and fuel are paid by the city, but if the county takes that away from the other departments, they're expected to put their lives on the line for nothing..."

Volunteer firefighters went to the Courthouse Annex expecting the commissioners to consider their annual budget. That's to be on Oct. 6.

The commissioners' agenda did, however, list spending plans as up for discussion. Instead, those items were withdrawn from the agenda during the meeting. The reason is there's to be a public hearing on the spending plan before the vote.

Comments are to be received at the Oct. 6 meeting at 5:30 p.m. in the second floor conference room of the Marshall County Courthouse Annex in the southeast corner of Lewisburg's public square.