On January 20, I sat down with Duane Testut, the Varna Volunteer Fire Company's treasurer, to talk about how our fire protection taxes are being spent. He'd seen my earlier post about the fire tax levy climbing 31.8% this year, after years of changes from 2-5%, and wanted to explain where the money was going, emphasisizing that this was a "catch-up year" after years of gradual squeezing.
The VVFC's total 2004 contract request was $185,025, a 58% increase over 2003's $117,079. Of that figure, $6000 represents money that the department had received in previous years, and was denied in 2003. That $6000 was restored, and an extra $6000 added to cover last year's denial, as it came directly from the capital budget for buying new equipment. If that $6000 is shifted back to 2003, then VVFC can be seen to be receiving $179,025, or a 45% increase in this year's budget from last year's $123,079.
(This $6000 was apparently originally an allocation for an extra engine to cover a proposed satellite station in Ellis Hollow, but became a regular feature of the VVFC budget for reasons no one I've spoken with so far can satisfactorily explain. The $6000 also disappeared from last year's budget for reasons that again seem unexplainable. The most extended explanation I can find is in the Town Board minutes for December 4, 2002, which corresponds well to what Duane said Wednesday, but doesn't explain how the money disappeared from the budget.)
The VVFC also has $42,905 in one-time expenditures this year, which I'll explore in more detail in a bit. These expenses, while they certainly affected this year's tax levy, will not continue to next year. These expenditures aside, that means that the VVFC contract amount increased to $136,120. Accepting the corrected $6000, that means a real increase of about 10%. There's also one line in the VVFC budget for Professional Fees - accounting, primarily - that seems sensible when audits were a primary focus of discussion. Subtracting that as a new cost of governance leaves $128,620 - for a 4.5% overall increase in costs comparable to those in prior years.
The VVFC has been increasing the amount that it puts into its capital equipment fund by 3% a year, while the town has increased their budget roughly 2% a year since 1997, with the exception of last year when (because of the $6000) it fell 3%. This has meant a growing squeeze on operating money. While the VVFC does receive income from bequests, donations, and grants, those haven't been steady or increasing income. In this light, the 4.5% increase doesn't seem that unusual.
The one-time expenditures, as they account for 36% of this year's increase by themselves, are worth closer examination. There's $10,000 for a generator at the station, which makes it much more capable in case of an extended outage. There are two communications systems - a $9,595 repeater system that lets them communicate throughout the district without issues created by the hills, and a $8,500 dual channel system that lets them dispatch (and dispatch themselves) more effectively. There is $9,500 for scene lights for truck 1943, their heavy rescue truck. According to Testut, this retrofit comes from their not being able to afford it in 1998 when the truck was purchased. There's also a $1500 manifold and gate to update 1941, the mini-pumper. A "Baby Annie" CPR training mannequin is $350. Blacktop sealing for the driveway is $3500.
The repeater system is especially interesting, as it spends less than $10,000 to solve a problem the county has planned investing millions to solve with a larger but controversial system. By putting a repeater on Game Farm Road, the VVFC can avoid the large gap in their system created by Mt. Pleasant. Natan Huffman reports:
"The Town of Dryden has chosen to supplement fire and EMS communication by funding local UHF repeater systems rather than count on the county to find resolution to a 20 year old problem. The Varna repeater is the latest local system to go on line and has already proven its mettle during January as it provides a tactical frequency and gives coverage in the dead spots of the county system. Neptune Hose has had its system operating for years and the W. B. Strong Fire Department of Freeville is going through licensing application. The result of the addition of the Varna and Freeville repeaters along with the Neptune Hose system is coverage throughout our town, something the county system cannot do."
It's also worth noting that the VVFC is expanding Project SAFE (Secure Access For Elderly), which uses Knox Boxes to give the company secured access to people's houses without having to knock down the door. They have used a similar system for places like NYSEG that can build these into their budget, but these boxes are intended for use by elderly residents who are especially likely to need emergency assistance. Money for this is coming from grants and bequests, not town taxes.
While it is a lot of money, I can't see anything here that's unusual or surprising for a fire department. This is only information from one department, and this district includes four, but it seems like that fire taxes will decline next year and return to a more typical pattern afterward. This increase seems mostly to correct for a bumpy few years, and this year's one-time expenditures should help prevent expenses in future years.Posted by simon at January 24, 2004 7:47 AM in Tompkins County , Varna , emergency services , photos , politics (local) , public finance