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For Fire Departments, More to State Budget Than Numbers

Budget decisions revolve around numbers, but talking about money is just a way to talk about policy. Consider the case of volunteer fire departments.

Liverpool, Texas Volunteer Fire Department

This isn’t about the town of West, but the devastating fire and explosion there underscore something you might not have known: the vast majority of fire departments in Texas are staffed by volunteers.

Texas has 1,435 registered fire departments, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and 85.6 percent of them are staffed either mostly or entirely by volunteer firefighters.

West is one of those.

So let’s use the volunteer fire departments for a little thought experiment.

Lawmakers decided more than a decade ago — and this is a tax- and fee-averse group of people — to assess property insurance companies $15 million a year to finance these departments. If they hadn’t been convinced of the need, they would never have created that fee.

Those same lawmakers, for a while, sent the money they collected to the fire departments that needed it. With no needs, they could have cut spending and lowered or repealed the assessment that brings in that revenue.

In 2007, lawmakers were convinced it would be a good idea to double the fire prevention assessment, raising the amount collected for support of volunteer fire departments to $30 million from $15 million. The money came in, but most of it never got near a fire truck, hose or helmet.

The state’s collections increased, but in the budget rubble that followed an economic downturn, lawmakers in 2011 lowered the amount made available for grants without lowering the assessment. In fact, after having doubled the collections, lawmakers halved the allotments, cutting the grants to volunteer fire departments to $7 million per year.

The grant money is for anything from fire and rescue trucks to training supplies and courses to fire coats, hats and boots. The departments apply to the Texas A&M Forest Service, which considers the requests and pays for what it can afford to finance.

At the beginning of April, the list of legitimate requests totaled $77.5 million. The comptroller estimates the balance in the account financed by those insurance assessments will be $80.9 million at the end of August, when the budget period comes to an end.

The 10 lawmakers reconciling the differences between the House and Senate budgets have dozens and dozens of deals to cut over the next few days. A little item like the fire departments is “budget dust” — an amount so small in the overall scheme of things that lawmakers don’t devote much attention to it. That said, they don’t have enough money to wean themselves immediately off the $5 billion collected in taxes and fees that are diverted from their original purposes.

Lawmakers would like to get rid of the practice, but slowly. They have proposed higher financing for the fire programs, spending $18.5 million of the $30 million that comes in from insurance companies. It’s an improvement from the 2011 cuts, if still short of the program’s promise. And this week, the House approved legislation to limit those diversions to $4 billion, with the implicit promise to tighten the limit in future sessions.

That doesn’t mean they will spend more money on the programs and services that are supposed to get the dedicated funds; one solution is to stop collecting the money that isn’t being spent on those programs. The volunteer fire departments could use the money, and theirs is a generally sympathetic cause.

It’s easy to pick any budget apart with a series of questions about spending money on this but not that, or raising money from this but not that. It is an endless argument about priorities that is the centerpiece of how a government operates.

The money for firefighting is a little bitty piece of that. But it is part of a bigger conversation about the $5 billion collected by the state for dedicated purposes that is diverted or held back in order to free funds for other things and to keep the budget in balance while doing so.

Account No. 5064 — the one for rural fire prevention — is one of 200 State of Texas accounts with pools of promised but unspent money. It isn’t the biggest. This diversion might not be the most egregious. It is, however, a reminder that the debates over money are not really about the money.

Sometimes, they are really about life and death.

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