Volunteer fire departments get boost in Texas budget but still see needs

By CLAIRE CARDONA Austin Bureau ccardona@dallasnews.com
Published: 27 May 2013 10:54 PM
Updated: 27 May 2013 11:30 PM

AUSTIN — Volunteer fire departments have received a lot of recognition for running toward disaster in West, but they didn’t receive a huge budget boost to accompany it.

The state budget approved over the weekend will have more funds available for volunteer fire departments and rural departments in the next two years — $39.8 million for 2014-15, compared with $28.9 million for 2012-13.

That’s $10.9 million more to serve the state’s 1,400 volunteer departments, whose funds were deeply cut in 2011, when lawmakers faced a huge budget shortfall.

Chris Barron, executive director for the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshal’s Association of Texas, said the state has fallen behind when it comes to allocating funds for the first responders.

“It will take more than four years to meet the outstanding requests,” Barron said. “We see fire departments out there struggling and only getting $5,000 a year for local cities, like West; then they have to rely on state funding and fundraising.”

Barron said more could have been allocated from a fund that collected about $30 million a year since 2007 through property insurance companies. Like many dedicated funds, the money is held in reserve to help the state budget balance.

“If they were collecting it [for fire departments], it should be going to them,” he said.
The extra money could go to additional training, Barron said, that could have helped avoid situations like the April 17 fertilizer plant explosion in West, which injured 200 and killed 15, including nine first responders.

Rep. Stefani Carter, R-Dallas, tried to attach an amendment to a supplemental spending bill that would ensure more funds go to first responders, including volunteer fire departments, but she was asked to remove it.

“It’s absurd. In the budget that we passed, it does have more [funding] relative to last time, but it’s still not enough,” she said. “I just want to add a little bit more, especially in light of what happened.”

Republican Rep. Kyle Kacal, whose district includes West, had more luck with his amendment, which allocates $10 million to the recovery effort. The money will go to help the city and school district rebuild infrastructure.

Kacal said the Legislature’s job is to make sure volunteer departments have the tools they need to continue operations.

West Mayor Tommy Muska said the town is getting back into shape after the disaster and is awaiting federal money for rebuilding. But an outpouring of support means the town can rely less on state dollars for now.

“Our fire department is going to be exceptionally well-funded and -supplied,” Muska said. “We struggle just as any other volunteer fire department does in funds.”

The department holds barbecue cookoffs and other fundraisers to bring in about $10,000 a year, so the additional state funding will go a long way, Muska said.

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