Firefighters seeking dedicated funding source

 

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Delaware’s 60 volunteer firefighting companies receive state funding through Grants-in-Aid, with the money primarily going to maintenance of equipment. Companies also may set aside some of that money in anticipation of buying new equipment. (Delaware State News file/Dave Chambers)

DOVER — The Delaware Volunteer Firefighter’s Association seeks a bill that separates emergency responders from the multitude of organizations annually awarded Grant-in-Aid funding from legislators.

“Grant-in-Aid mostly involves worthy charitable organizations, but we’re not a charity,” spokesman Warren Jones said after presenting the association’s case before the Joint Finance Committee on Monday at Legislative Hall. “It just doesn’t fit into what we do.”

The firefighter’s association is concerned that it’s tied to potential budget cuts that could affect all Grant-in-Aid recipients, and hopes a public safety bill brings a separate evaluation of firefighters throughout the state, along with paramedics in all three counties.

In the past, about $6 million has been provided for Delaware’s 60 volunteer firefighting companies. It took years to return to that level after a 20 percent drop in Grant-in-Aid funding across the board in Fiscal Year 2010, according to Mr. Jones, the association’s executive manager.

That’s a scenario the firefighter’s association doesn’t want to relive. A public safety bill would allow firefighters to make their case to the Joint Finance committee for specific needs.

The appropriated money goes primarily to maintenance that includes apparatus, ladder truck, ambulance, boat and rescue truck, among others, along with sub-station maintenance. The money is distributed to fire companies based on a formula that evaluates the size of a company’s fleet of vehicles.

Taking it in

Sitting in on the firefighters’ presentation was Joint Finance Committee member Rep. Bill Carson, D-Smyrna, who said the matter needs further discussion.

“Our volunteer fire service is looking for a more stable funding mechanism and I can certainly understand that,” Rep. Carson said.

“As a former fire chief I know how much the fire companies rely on resources from the state.

“The DVFA brought this idea for a separate public safety funding bill to the JFC this week, and I think all of us on the committee listened closely to what they had to say.

“I would like to hear more about how this would look on paper, and I’m sure my fellow committee members would as well. As this year’s JFC process continues we’ll have a chance to discuss this further, ask questions and hear the details, and I look forward to doing so.

“This is obviously one of a whole host of budget priorities the JFC has been presented with this year.”

Mr. Jones said firefighters have been speaking with legislators in an attempt to raise support, and spoke with Gov. Jack Markell about it in 2015 and this January.

“It’s something that’s been on our mind for years,” Mr. Jones said.

In the last 10 years, rising expenses have put a crimp on the fire companies’ ability to operate, and provided funding hasn’t followed the same track.

“With a lot of companies, the money they receive from government doesn’t cover half their expenses,” Mr. Jones said.

DVFA President Joesph Zeroles, of Harrington, said up to 45 firefighters attended the JFC hearing.

“We felt good leaving there,” he said, “and I think we have a good chance at getting what is needed.”

While the economy has risen from the lows around 2008, funding continues to challenge fire companies, Sussex County Volunteer Firefighter’s Association President Ron O’Neal said.

“In the current economic environment, every dollar is extremely important to each organization in the Delaware volunteer fire service,” Mr. O’Neal said.

“… This move would allow the JFC to better identify the funding needs of the volunteers moving forward. The fire service is very fortunate to have the relationship with our elected officials at both the state and county levels and we look forward to working with them on this important funding issue.”

An essential part

For Carlisle Fire Company President Ryan Knowles of Milford, secured funding is a critical component of a budget.

“For Carlisle, this would be a good thing,” he said. “Every year we anticipate budget cuts due to possible cuts in funding from the state. If we could get this secured into a separate account designated only for fire companies it may ease the anticipation each company faces when preparing their annual budget.

“Carlisle uses this money towards apparatus maintenance along with setting a certain percentage aside each year for future apparatus purchase.

“It is an essential part of our yearly budget.”

Kent County Volunteer Firefighter’s Association President Earle Dempsey applauded Mr. Jones for his presentation.

“As Warren portrayed during his presentation, our industry has changed and continues to change, but state funding has not kept pace — with our funding today being essentially the same as 10 years ago,” Mr. Dempsey said.

Also, Mr. Dempsey said, “Where we are currently, we are lumped into many other service and nonprofit organizations who, while serving important missions themselves, are not necessarily comparable to the essential service provided by the fire, EMS and paramedic services.

“Having us in the same bucket has resulted in substantial risk to us and our funding, and therefore our operations, in the past.”

Describing the firefighter’s association’s request as “innovative,” Mr. Dempsey hopes a separation bill will help legislators meet emergency service needs.

“Then, the legislature has the flexibility in the future to address the different types of organizations differently — whether the budget situation requires consideration of cuts, increases or whatever,” Mr. Dempsey said.

“I believe what has been proposed is a very innovative way for all those involved in the process to intelligently address the budget in the future in a more efficient and informed manner.”

Hockessin Fire Company President Dan Carrier said, “I agree with moving us to our own public safety grant and aid the fire service is the only public safety entity that has to raise over half of their budget to operate all other public safety divisions are funded 100 percent including crossing guards.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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