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Fire and rescue report presented

February 17, 2001

Fire and rescue report presented



By SCOTT BUTKI / Staff Writer


For months questions to the Washington County Commissioners about fire and rescue funding issues have often been answered with: Just wait for the release of the Emergency Service Council's fire and rescue report.

Now that it's released, the report returns the commissioners to the drivers' seat as they choose what direction to go with changes that have been proposed.

The commissioners have called a meeting for sometime in the next few weeks with the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association to discuss the report.

Some of the commissioners say they want to start prioritizing the report's recommendations, perhaps making the first priority a requirement that companies file uniform financial information with the county.

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The report examined and responded to more than 120 recommendations included in a 1998 study and a 1999 addendum by consultant Carroll Buracker and Associates of Harrisonburg, Va.

The Buracker study referred to a 1991 report by the Emergency Services Task Force which, like this council, consisted of Washington County citizens.

Supporters of the new report and its suggestions believe this one will bring about desired changes to the fire and rescue system. They say some changes have been implemented.

Spending urged


The 15-member council consisted of seven people representing the fire and rescue sector, seven representing the public at-large and one ex-officio member, County Commissioner Bert Iseminger.

The council's 18-page report with an 18-page appendix suggests the county spend more money to help fund the service and recommends more financial accountability from the companies.

The fire report contained no suggestions on how the county should pay more than $2 million in proposed costs ranging from building a new communications center and a new fire and rescue training facility to paying for fuel and utility costs for all companies.

The training facility is estimated to cost $1.8 million while the cost for a communication center is unknown. The fuel and apparatus costs are projected at $450,000 for the 27 stations.

The 1999 Buracker report suggests the county establish, for the first time, a single countywide tax district to pay for fire and rescue services. It did not suggest a specific amount for the so-called fire tax.

In the report released Tuesday, the council takes no position on the fire tax question.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook brought up the funding issue during a council presentation to the commissioners last week.

John Latimer III, a council member and past president of Longmeadow Volunteer Fire Co., replied, "We were trying to steer away from that."

The county may find it has no choice but to impose a fire tax, Latimer said. But the commissioners and Fire and Rescue Association board should pursue other recommendations before deciding whether to assess a fire tax, he said.

'Volunteer, not free'


That doesn't mean raising funds isn't an issue.

The key is the words on the door of some emergency vehicles which say "volunteer, not free," committee member Joe Kroboth said Tuesday. He is chief of the Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway and deputy engineer for Washington County.

The council concluded the county should pay for some fire and rescue personnel but did not state how many employees or what the cost would be, Iseminger said. No funding source was suggested.

"How the county and the (association) propose to fund or implement these series of recommendations is yet to be decided," the report said. "The council's role was not to determine how, but to identify what."

The report says the council's intent was two-fold: Preserve the volunteer component of the fire and rescue system while also improving service.

The report was needed, Latimer said, because the fire and rescue system faces challenges, including community growth, retaining new volunteers, fund raising and the high cost of apparatus. Those issues were kept in mind as the report was compiled, he said.

"I think we're beginning to address some of the specific issues that feed into these challenges," Latimer said.

Two of the report's suggestions, he noted, are:

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Having the county assist the fire and rescue companies with fund drive programs, possibly providing a centralized distribution service and a standard marketing format. Contributions would still be mailed directly to the fire and rescue companies.

The change could save each company up to $5,000 as well as many man hours.

The county's help with the fund raising will remove some pressure on companies to find enough money each year, Latimer said. It will also free up volunteers' time, he said.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Requiring all companies to start filing with the county annual financial audits, uniform annual capital and operating budgets and a 10-year apparatus replacement plan, updated every two years. The latter plan requires county endorsement.

It is reasonable for the county to expect that information, Latimer said. Some companies already have the requested documents, and all companies are now using the same financial software, he said.

One thing some companies will need to do is switch their budget years from calendar year to fiscal year, Iseminger said.

In its conclusion the report points out that while it recommends new costs for the county government, it is also asking for more accountability from the companies.

"With a heightened commitment from the Board of County Commissioners, fire and rescue companies will need to recognize the necessity to be more accountable for administrative and operational issues within the fire and EMS system," the report states.

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