May 4, 2017

Uncertainty surrounds fire department funding

Many New Mexicans are fully aware that, with the summer, fire season is just around the corner. But James Canyon Fire Chief Bill Hanson goes further.

“Fire season is here,” Hanson said.

What is approaching, Hanson said, is the end of the fiscal year. And his volunteer fire department, located just east of Alamogordo, still doesn’t know how much money they’ll receive or when the money will arrive.

“We’re two months from the next fiscal year and we still don’t know when the payments are going to come,” Hanson said.

The payments Hanson is wondering about usually come from the state’s Fire Protection Fund and are doled out each year by the state Fire Marshal. During the 2017 state legislative session, however, lawmakers and Gov. Susana Martinez approved a measure to revert money from the fire fund back to the general fund. The bill passed swiftly and early on in the session as part of a legislative solvency package aimed at balancing the state’s budget. Almost as quickly, it got Martinez’s signature to sign it into law.

Now fire departments like Hanson’s are trying to figure out how to craft next year’s budget, without much help from the state’s fire marshal’s office.

“We haven’t heard a word,” Hanson said.

About seven miles south of Alamogordo, Boles Acres Fire Chief John Badjar voiced similar concerns. Badjar said he’s not sure how to map out next year’s budget until he hears from the Fire Marshal.

“I can’t plan my budget on a hope and a prayer,” Badjar said.

He said only about 15 calls to his department so far this year, out of about 140, were fire related, but that he expects those to increase in the coming months. A number of fire calls, Badjar said, come from other jurisdictions asking for help. When that happens, his department is often reimbursed long after the fact.

“With state forestry and the state government, sometimes it takes four, five, six months to get our money back,” Badjar said.

A spokesman for the Public Regulation Commission, which oversees the fire marshal’s office, told NM Political Report the PRC is working to coordinate with state agencies to determine when funds will be distributed to fire departments.

“This distribution schedule will be determined shortly, as we will be meeting with the Working Group in the near future, with an official announcement being made accordingly,” Carlos Padilla, a spokesman for the PRC, wrote in an email.

Padilla added that the formula used to determine a fire department’s need will remain the same.

The Fire Protection Fund is made up of various insurance fees and taxes.

Even the state’s biggest fire departments largely depend on the state money in the Fire Protection Fund. Money disbursed to the Albuquerque Fire Department, for example, makes up about 2.5 percent of the department’s total budget, according to spokeswoman Melissa Romero.

Romero said Albuquerque’s department uses that money for operating expenses that would otherwise not be covered by the city budget.

“We definitely have concerns,” Romero said.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, told NM Political Report he’s heard similar complaints from volunteer fire departments in his district. Smith, who voted in favor of the legislative measure, said firefighters often forget that the Fire Protection Fund is made up of taxpayer dollars.

“The big rub is once money is earmarked [they think] it’s no longer taxpayers’ money,” Smith said.

Smith stressed that the Legislature was in a tight spot, tasked with fixing the fiscal year 2017 budget while Gov. Martinez stood firmly on no tax increases.

“It wasn’t as if we had a lot of options at that point,” Smith said, adding the Legislature was forced to “rob Peter to pay Paul.”

Badjar has a slightly different take on the old adage.

“They rob Peter to pay Paul and now we’re trying to figure out how Peter’s going to survive,” Badjar said.

As far as the fire fund being taxpayer’s money, Badjar agrees—to a point.

“My problem is I pay homeowners insurance and I pay for the fire department to be there,” he said.

The Boles Acres Fire Department received about $180,000 from the Fire Protection Fund last year and the James Canyon department got about $75,000. Both chiefs said that money is usually used on personal protective equipment, or PPE, and breathing apparatuses.

Both chiefs also take issue with the Legislature taking money from fire departments, but Badjar specifically has a problem with how seemingly easy it was. The state House of Representatives approved the money transfer only a few weeks into the session and a few days later, the Senate followed.

“The Legislature was already talking before they went into session,” Badjar speculated. “It’s pretty amazing how fast that worked.”