The Riverside Fire District, staffed entirely by volunteer firefighters, is charged with protecting homes and businesses across 212 square miles of Washington County.
The Mississippi fire district, in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, responded to 80 to 85 fires with the vast majority of them residential blazes, among other emergencies, including vehicle crashes, Fire Chief Bill Schultz said.
Now, the Riverside firefighters face covering that same sprawling area with less than half the money the five commissioners who oversee the district, volunteers themselves, say is the bare minimum needed to do the job.
The county’s two smaller fire districts, Indian Mounds and Eastside, also face cuts, but oversee significantly smaller jurisdictions and require correspondingly less in the way of funding.
This past summer, the Washington County Board of Supervisors slashed funding to the firefighters in response to a legal determination that a 2-mill allocation to the fire districts derived from personal property taxes was in fact unlawful under state statute.
The district, which was created in 1988, can get by, at least in the immediate future, Schultz said, thanks to having been frugal in socking away $228,579 in savings entering the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.
Yet, he said, the economics, as they stand, ultimately are unsustainable.
The district received $202,835 from the county for the 2012-13 fiscal year compared with just $10,382 in 2013-14, according to an audit by Harvey Tackett, a Greenville certified public accountant who audits the fire district’s books.
The funding shortfall revealed by the audit set off immediate alarms.
“I do the end-of-the-year financials, and I emailed Mr. Schultz, and I told him, this is going to cause a potential real problem going into the future,”‘ Tackett said. “Another two more years, I told him, and we’re not going to be able to operate.”
And, he warned, the problem easily could turn worse: “Just a couple of problems with the equipment will eat up the cash real quick.”
Already, “we’ve had to cash out a $180,000 (certificate of deposit) for operating expenses,” Riverside Fire District Commissioner Jim Barnes said. “That means we no longer have the funds to buy a new truck even with a state grant.”
The district is in line for a $75,000 state grant in 2016 to help purchase a fire engine but is responsible for the difference between that sum and the purchase price.
“We’re going to need another truck,” Barnes said. “We’re stretched thin. We don’t have the funds to alleviate our problems.”
As it is, the district in early November closed one of its five stations, that on U.S. Highway 82, because “we didn’t have a truck to put in it,” Barnes said.
Plans to build, equip and man a station at Lake Jackson to help the fire district meet state guidelines calling for volunteer firefighters to live within five minutes of the station they serve now are on hold.
“That fire station, with a truck and other equipment, would have cost $300,000 to $400,000,” Schultz said. “As it is, we’re very limited in what we can do.”
While the state fire marshal’s office cannot mandate its staffing-proximity recommendations, a volunteer fire district’s failure to comply comes at a price.
“The state fire marshal wants our people to live within five miles of a station,” and, Schultz said, “in order to qualify for a low fire rating” which in turn reduces residential and commercial insurance premiums “you have to have that.”
The state can and does oversee equipment purchases.
“The state mandates what kind of equipment you have to have, and you have to go through approved vendors,” Barnes said. “We want the public to realize how expensive it is to maintain a fire department.”
The costs mount quickly.
“Our insurance alone runs about $22,000 a year,” Schultz said. “The air packs our men wear in an attack (on a fire) cost $4,200 apiece, and you have to have six per truck.”
Moreover, Barnes said, “we added seven new firefighters in anticipation of the Lake Jackson station and bought turnouts” fire-resistant boots, gloves, jackets, pants and helmets with visors “and those cost $1,631 apiece. We spent more on those seven turnouts” $11,417 “than we brought in” from the county in the past fiscal year: $10,382.
“Right now, we can’t replace any equipment,” he said.
The legal finding that the county can’t, by state law, allocate the two mills from property taxes “means we’ll be getting 46 percent of what we’ve been used to getting,” Barnes said.
As early as 2017, as things stand, he said, “firefighting will literally come to an end. Long term, it’s just not feasible.”
Given the district’s various operating costs, which include federal tax payments, insurance, fuel, communications, electricity, maintenance and repairs, “it’s going to take about $190,000 a year to keep the fire district running,” Schultz said.
And that’s if the district’s aging fleet holds up.
“We have four operational trucks,” Barnes said, three of which date to the 1970s.
The district benefits from being debt free and not having to pay its front-line people.
Only four district employees are paid, all part time. Schultz last year received $27,855 in compensation, although his annual pay “was cut to $15,000 when we discovered this mess,” Barnes said.
Also, a secretary is paid $6,000, and two assistant chiefs each receive $125 a month.
“We have 50-some firefighters, all volunteers,” Schultz said. “Many of them work for other departments, including Leland, and volunteer with us. That’s how much they care about the community.”
Barnes said the fire district may ask the Legislature to raise the property tax millage for rural fire districts or at least for Washington County.
“We would need at least four mills (from property taxes) and we’d still be losing ground every year,” Barnes said.
Until a funding solution can be determined, Schultz said, “We don’t want people panicking. We want people in the county to know that if your house catches fire in the next month, we’ll be there.”
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