Municipal Government Finances: Tiptoeing Through the Political Tulips

We strongly suggest that the chief fire officer who seeks to receive funds from a dedicated user-oriented fee schedule seek both political and legal advice before proceeding with such a program.

Many times during my years as a speaker and teacher at the Fire Department Instructor's Conference (FDIC) attendees have asked me to help them learn to navigate the rocks and shoals of the budgetary maelstrom which exists in many places. In order to help these fine folks to get the most for their fire departments I will provide some more thoughts about the wonderful world of politics as it impacts upon our search for the almighty dollar.

It is critical to remember that no matter what career government administrators wish to do, the approval of those representatives directly elected by the populace is always involved. What may seem like a reasonable expenditure to the fire department may run afoul due to the needs or election promises of elected government officials to remain in power. Very few politicians will jeopardize the political careers for the good of the fire service.

We wish to stress that political expediency frequently takes the place of a viable government policy. Taxation, as the conduit for our funding is no different. The matter of public finance is a frequent target of partisan politics. It is important to remember that politics will always be a part of the manner in which government raises its operating capital. You must, therefore, gather three very important elements in your campaign for fiscal resources which must be fought with politicians: facts, figures and friends.

The necessary facts to prove fire department need create rock-solid arguments necessary to withstand the glare of the public spotlight. It is difficult, although not impossible, for a politician to argue against a reasonable presentation supported by facts, although they often do.

Figures are essential to the fire administrator in search of organizational improvements. Anything which comes from the public’s largess, must be justified by accurate figures which show exactly how much they will cost.

An even better approach would be to demonstrate just how much will be saved by getting them. Nothing is saved by getting them. Nothing is saved by merely having figures – only by their application. The shrewd fire officer will gain friends throughout their community. These are the people who can fight the political battles. You must avoid such fights at all costs. You will only make enemies. In such a battle, whether you win or lose. Either way, somebody will be mad at you.

The setting and collections of user-based fees and charges is an extremely efficient way for local government to bring in the funds necessary to provide governmental services to any jurisdiction. When taxing the capacity in an area is exhausted, either by legislation or consumer activism, government frequently turns to specific user fees to fill in the revenue gaps.

This was frequently the case in California following the effects of Proposition 13 fever in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Fees were assessed for many of the services normally provided as part of governmental tax collection. In some instances they were overturned in court for being too vague in their justification. In others, they were allowed as a justifiable expense of doing business.

Many jurisdictions charge separate fees for services such as fire inspections, code and plan reviews and extinguisher charging. One innovative fire department in Texas has even developed a program to rent Wet-Vacs for dewatering purposes in their community. While the funds raised are often too low to cover the cost of providing the service, a fire department can still create some additional income and a bit of good will by providing these extra services.

Another good example is New Jersey’s Uniform Fire Code funding mechanism. It establishes a system whereby fees are set by the various local, county and state inspection programs. These fees are collected by the level of government which performs the service and then forwarded to the Bureau of Fire Safety for processing. The state retains 20 percent of the fees for agency expense and fire code administration.

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