The Austin Chronicle

LegeLand: Firefighters Hosed by the State

Perry's slash-and-burn handiwork is visible for miles

By Richard Whittaker, September 9, 2011, News

What kind of administration cuts funding to firefighters in a time of drought? It is a simple question, but as the bitter taste of smoke from the Central Texas fires envelops the Texas Capitol, it is one that lawmakers and voters should ask themselves.

This is the fire we all knew was coming. If it's dry enough for an extended period, then there will be a conflagration, and the only thing that you can do is prepare. Five years ago, Independent Cat­tle­man's Associa­tion Executive Director Bill Hyman told me: "Drought is not dramatic. It's like cancer. It's a slow death." Back then, it was true, but after five years of desiccation, that slow death has become a speeding inferno.

Even with this knowledge, the state this year cut its contribution to the Volunteer Fire Department Assist­ance Program, a vital resource administered by the Texas Forest Service that provides volunteer firefighters with training and equipment. In 2009, lawmakers put $59.5 million into it. When budget time came again this year, every state agency knew they were facing cuts. However, the Texas Forest Service asked for an exemption "due to the agency's critical role in public safety in the areas of wildfire and emergency response," and asked that lawmakers only shave $2.5 million off the top.

Instead, legislators proposed a 39% cut in the Forest Service's Wildfire and Emer­gency Services budget, and the bulk of that cut came out of the general revenue contribution to volunteer firefighters. That $59.5 million for 2010-2011 falls to $27 million for 2012-2013 – a 55% cut. On top of that, the Lege pulled 5% out of the Rural Volun­teer Fire Department Insurance Fund, cutting its already insignificant $2 million contribution by $100,000.

Plea for Donations

Make no mistake: This is a critical strike at one of the most important public safety institutions in Texas. According to the State Firemen's & Fire Marshals' Associa­tion of Texas, 77% of all fire departments are volunteer agencies. These volunteers have been fighting back fires across Texas that have claimed 3.5 million acres, more than 2,400 structures, and countless domestic livestock and wildlife this year alone. In a plea for donations this week, association director Chief Chris Bar­ron wrote, "Eighty-six percent of the state's volunteer firefighters use personal funds for their departments' safety equipment and supply needs."

The Texas GOP-dominant Legislature does not just cut its own funding to first responders: It also restricts their ability to pay for themselves. Back in 2009, then-state Rep. Valinda Bolton, D-Austin, championed House Joint Resolution 112, giving Emer­gen­cy Service Districts the power to ask voters in unincorporated areas for construction bonds. As populations swell beyond city limits, ESDs struggle to build enough station houses and buy enough equipment, and their response times suffer as a result. But Bolton's measure faced unexpected opposition, and the reasoning, she said at the time, was simple: "The caption on the bill actually has ad valorem in it," and ad valorem tax bills die in the Texas Legislature.

Last year, while Gov. Rick Perry was receiving a re-election endorsement from the Texas State Associ­a­tion of Fire Fight­ers, he was quite happy to take credit for signing pro-firefighter bills. At a press conference a year ago this month, I asked Perry about the failure of HJR 112, and he danced around the question, saying: "I don't know the ins and outs of the legislation. It didn't get to my desk." But the state budget – including the cuts to the volunteer firefighters – did make it to his desk, and he signed it. So next time the presidential hopeful rails about how the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the feds aren't helping enough, someone ask him what he's done for firefighters recently.

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