Hot topic: Fire chief wants county to change department funding formula

By Brian Knox | Published Wednesday, April 24, 2019

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Decatur Fire Chief Mike Richardson has asked the county to look at a more equitable funding formula for local fire departments.

During Monday’s workshop, Richardson shared with the Decatur City Council a presentation on fire department funding and the challenges faced by departments in areas where the population is growing. He shared the same information recently with County Judge J.D. Clark.

Richardson said this discussion began last year during budget talks regarding the fire department and the number of calls that were in the county compared to the city.

“It gets to the point where I come to you saying, ‘I need more and more money to be able to run this increase in calls every year,'” Richardson said. “The discussion is then, ‘How much of that is out in the county, and how does that compare to the rest of the county?'”

Each of the 17 county fire departments receive the same amount of annual funding from the county: $50,400.

But each department has a different population it serves with a differing amount of calls per year.

Richardson showed the council a breakdown of how much the county’s funding ends up being on a “per-call” basis. In 2017, Decatur Fire Department had 1,951 calls, which equates to $25.83 per call – the lowest in the county. The next lowest contribution per run was Boyd Volunteer Fire Department with $46.37 per run.

Newark, Rhome and Bridgeport also received less than $100 per call.

Some departments with smaller call numbers received a larger contribution from the county. For instance, Richardson said Sand Flat Volunteer Fire Department responded to 54 calls in 2017, which equates to $933.33 per run.

Richardson said his intention is not to decrease funding to those smaller departments.

“The $50,000 for unincorporated areas like that, I think that’s the minimum to keep the doors open, because they have to pay for taking care of the trucks, taking care of the building, insurance and things like that.”

Instead, Richardson wanted to find a more equitable way to fund fire department services county-wide.

In his discussion with Clark, he pointed out that the county law enforcement budget is around $9 million per year, and the Emergency Medical Services budget is around $3 million. But the budget for fire departments is less than $1 million. That fire department budget was reduced by 3 percent from 2013 to 2016 and has remained the same since that time.

Meanwhile, since 2013, Decatur’s call volume has increased 35 percent, Richardson said. He said other departments, particularly those in the south and eastern part of the county where much of the growth in the county is taking place, are seeing similar increases in call volume.

Richardson said in 2017, 29 percent of his department’s calls were outside of the city. That same percentage of the department’s total budget would equate to $325,848.

He also pointed out that while city residents pay both city and county taxes, residents in the county who are receiving Decatur Fire Department services pay only county taxes.

In the past, Richardson said the department could use city annexation plans as a way to plan for future growth, but the recently-approved Tier 2 status makes that type of planning unlikely moving forward.

And the issue will only become more serious as growth in the county continues, he said.

“One of the things that keeps me up at night is seeing hundreds of homes go up outside the city and knowing we’re bound to protect that,” he said. “When you have the same number of people (on staff), it becomes more difficult.”

Richardson said he talked to Clark about different options. One option is to use a weighted funding model similar to one Johnson County uses. He said that county bases funding in the following way: 20 percent on call volume, 20 percent of the size of the area served, 20 percent on population estimation and 40 percent on tax assessment/valuations.

Richardson said Clark planned to speak to the county auditor about the situation to possibly come up with a plan.

On Tuesday, Clark said he had a good visit with Richardson regarding the funding and run numbers and said it will be something to consider when creating next year’s budget.

“It’s something we will be working on to hash out in budget season,” he said. “It’s not something you can change in the middle of a budget year.”

Clark said the county could consider a system similar to the way it funds county libraries. In that case, each library receives a set amount of funding, and then the other half of the funding is divided up based on the population served.

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