June 20, 2006

Varna Volunteer Fire Company's promising future?

The June Town Board meeting returned to a common topic of Town of Dryden government and politics: the details of fire protection financing. With chiefs from Etna, Freeville, and Dryden looking on, the Varna Volunteer Fire Company presented on the bright news of its present and the potentially darker news of its future.

Varna Fire Chief Natan Huffman started the presentation with good news. The territory the VVFC covers is growing, with new businesses developing near the Route 13/366 intersection, there is residential growth, and perhaps best of all the fire company itself is growing: 14 new people coming in last year, 10 of whom are likely to stay, and 6 new people so far in 2006. Call volume has also grown from 200 calls a few years ago to 297 calls last year.

After Huffman finished reporting on the state of the department, VVFC Chairman Oliver Habicht spoke about the state of the department's finances. Habicht confirmed the department's embrace of transparent finances (the VVFC very helpfully shared their information with me a few years ago) and talked about how Varna has no village or endowment supporting its finances - just the Town. Habicht walked board members through a presentation on the VVFC's finances (90KB PowerPoint, plus additional supporting material).

Oliver Habicht talks about VVFC finances
Varna Chair Oliver Habicht talks about Varna Volunteer Fire Company finances while Chief Natan Huffman and Treasurer Harry Kesten listen.

Of the VVFC's expenses, 51% are operating costs, 19% miscellaneous capital equipment, and 30% the truck replacement schedule. Fire equipment costs have risen consistently at 6% a year - "safety inflation" - through good years and bad. The VVFC has adhered to a strict policy of paying for purchases in cash, without taking on debt. Unfortunately, its funding model over the last few years was based on less than that, with the Town budget generally increasing their funding by a lower amount, around 3% a year.

The place where this has most potential for problems is in the truck replacement schedule, which Habicht pointed out is going to fall into deficit ($102,247) in 2012 and again ($185,479) in 2018. Either the Town will have to find additional money, or the VVFC will have to consider going into debt, raising the cost of purchasing equipment.

Choices for the VVFC equipment budget
Choices for the VVFC equipment budget. (Pink line - current, blue proposed.)

Fixing this problem is doable - advance planning will make it much easier - but there's a cost. They proposed a $14,661 increase for 2007 - instead of $50,509, $65,170 - and then a 6% annual increase to keep up with prices. They also propose dropping a $5000 annual "matching funds" program, reducing the increase to the overall budget somewhat.

Chief Huffman then talked for a while about things the fire company hopes to do in the future, like supporting placing defibrillators in public places, adding smoke detectors, an apprentice program for Varna EMTs with Dryden Ambulance, more public fire prevention programs, and eventually developing a bunker program with the many vet students who live in Varna. (Cayuga Heights has a waiting list for their bunker program with a similar student base, and it makes immediate response to calls much easier.)

This is no doubt going to be one of the bigger questions in town politics over the next few years, and it's a little frustrating that there were only a few people at the Town Board meeting. I'm delighted to see Varna put this amount of information out to the public, and hope it might start a new phase of open communications about the fire protection needs of the town. I'm also happy to see them planning ahead, and hope the Town can avoid the habit of one-time expenditures that make fire taxes leap up suddenly, or debt service that increases them permanently.

Posted by simon at June 20, 2006 5:38 PM in
Note on photos