Donations help volunteers with expenses
Reported by: Kiah Collier /San Angelo Standard Times
Tuesday, May 24 2011
AUSTIN — State elected officials — including San Angelo’s own state Rep. Drew Darby — are urging Texans to contribute to a new relief fund created to help volunteer fire departments purchase much needed equipment in the wake of the devastating wildfire season.
At a news conference Tuesday morning at the Capitol, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples — flanked by several West Texas state lawmakers whose districts have been affected by the fires — emphasized the financial drain of what he said has been “one of the worst wildfire seasons on record” and implored Texans to donate to the Texas Wildfire Relief Fund set up by the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas.
Staples applauded the Independent Insurance Agents of Texas for its $100,000 donation to the fund — the first significant contribution — but said it pales in comparison to the existing financial need.
“Although it is a significant contribution, it is pennies compared to the need out there, the need that is so great to help these volunteer firefighters to carry out their mission,” Staples said. “But all Texans have the opportunity to give to this relief fund.”
The state has set up its own account to receive donations to help fund firefighting costs, which have grown to almost $102 million statewide, according to the most recent estimates from the Texas Forest Service.
In remarks made at the news conference, state Rep. Rick Hardcastle, a Republican from Vernon, said local volunteer fire departments are out of money.
“They have been fueling up their trucks with their own money so any contribution will be greatly appreciated, because these folks aren’t going to quit, they are going to be ready for the next fire,” he said.
The news conference came a day after budget negotiators finalized a state spending plan that cuts funding to the Texas Forest Service, the lead agency in charge of fighting wildfires, by one-third over the next two years. The cut includes an almost 70 percent reduction in funding to the agency’s two main grant assistance programs that help volunteer fire departments buy equipment, including fire trucks.
The agency’s overall funding will be reduced in 2012-13 from $109 million to about $75 million. Money available for grants will be reduced by about 67 percent from $48.4 million to $15.8 million, said Robby DeWitt, associate director of the agency’s finance department.
DeWitt said the Legislature doubled funding to the grant program, which began in 2002, for the first time during the 2009 legislative session because of the increased need and the program’s overall success. Until then, he said the Legislature had provided $15 million a year in funding to the program.
“The program was so successful in achieving its intended purpose, I believe that had a lot to do with why the Legislature chose to increase it, and there’s a significant need with volunteer fire departments,” DeWitt said.
DeWitt said the cut will force the agency to stop giving grants to purchase fire trucks, but that they will still provide grant funding for less expensive firefighting gear. He said agency has provided $194 million in grants and other financial assistance to the state’s volunteer fire departments over the past decade.
“There’s still a significant amount of help, it’s just that for the next biennium we won’t be able to award grants on large equipment,” he said.
DeWitt said they are hopeful that the grant funding will be restored during the next legislative session as state coffers grow with the recovering economy.
“You have to recognize that for the last 10 years, we have been awarding grants for large equipment, so a lot of progress has been made to assist volunteer fire departments, and we are hopeful that in the next biennium that things will have improved enough that we can restore that grant funding,” he said.
As it works to cut its own spending, the federal government recently denied Texas’ request for a federal disaster declaration made in response to the wildfires, which have collectively burned almost 2.6 million acres. A declaration would make the state eligible for more federal assistance.
“These funds have been slow to nonexistent in coming,” said Sen. Craig Estes, a Republican from Wichita Falls, at the news conference.
Tom Green County Treasurer Dianna Spieker said the county will still be eligible for up to 75 percent reimbursement for expenses incurred fighting its fires. Local volunteer fire departments have until Monday to report expenses to the county, she said.
Spieker said there is some concern that the overall reimbursement percentage may be smaller because of the grim budget situation facing all levels of government, but that the county will likely have to wait years to receive the reimbursements anyway.
“That is a concern that they will be more stringent, but on the flip side of it, I’m not sure if they’re going to be more stringent because of lack of funding or if this is just going to be the normal due process for them,” she said. ” They tell us that on average it takes two to three years to get any money back from the federal government on these kinds of grants.”
Spieker said the county has collected more than $19,000 in local donations to assist about a dozen volunteer fire departments in the area.