Are You Ready for the Politics of Fire Service Finances?

When it comes time to request funding for your fire department, Dr. Harry Carter illustrates why you should be sure to have your facts and figures ready at all times.

My friends I believe that it is once again time to take a look at the world of budgets and finance. Money is the fuel which runs the machine of our operations and the oil which lubricates the engine as we move forward to protect out communities.  It is important to remember, that no matter what government administrators wish to do, the people can still have a voice.  We hear this voice through the approval of those representatives directly elected by the populace.  It is up to us to insure that these people hear us.

What may seem like a reasonable expenditure to provide municipal fire protection may fail to meet the needs or election promises of elected government officials in their quest to remain in power.  You will soon discover that very few politicians will ever jeopardize their political careers for the good of the fire service.  They will pat you on the back and gush over you with praise, but they will frequently keep their municipal checkbook in their pocket.

Fire administrators or would-be administrators must remember that political expediency frequently takes the place of a viable government policy.  Taxation is not different.  The matter of public finance is frequently the target of partisan bickering.  It is important to remember that, politics will always be a part of the manner in which government raises its operating capital.  It would be wise to gather three elements in any battle for fiscal resources which must be fought with politicians.  Facts-Figures-Friends

Facts must prove fire department need and create rock-solid arguments which can withstand the glare of the public spotlight.  It is difficult for a politician to argue against a reasonable presentation supported by facts. Figures are essential to the fire administrator in search of organizational improvements.  Funds which come from the public’s treasury must be justified by figures which show exact costs.  Better yet, they should show how much will be saved by their expenditure. The shrewd fire administrator will gain friends throughout the community who can fight the political battle he should avoid such fights.

It has been said that the setting and collection 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 capacity in an area is exhausted, government frequently turns to specific user fees to fill in the revenue gaps.  But are these not taxes with a new name?

This was frequently the case in California following the effects of Propostition-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 justifiable expense of doing business. There are still a number of jurisdictions that charge separate fees for services such as fire inspections, code and plan reviews and extinguisher charging.

I can recall the time that one innovative fire department in Texas even developed a program to rent Wet-Vacs for dewatering purposes in their community.  While the funds raised by such efforts are often too low to cover the cost of providing the service, they can create additional income and a bit of good will by providing these extra services.

One good example comes from New Jersey’s Uniform Fire Code.  It establishes a system where fees are set by the various local, county and state inspection programs.  Fees are collected by the level of government which performs the service and forwarded to the Bureau of Fire Safety for processing.  The state retains 20% of the fees for agency expense and fire code administration.  Local and county enforcement agencies receive the other 80 percent to fund their operations.  The program has allowed most fire prevention bureaus in New Jersey to increase their size and improve the delivery of fire prevention and inspection services.

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