Scott Friedman, NBC 5 Investigates
The state legislature has approved more funding for volunteer fire departments, but far less than what’s sitting in the account is headed to firefighters.
Lawmakers in Austin have decided again that Texas volunteer fire departments cannot have all of the money in a special fund that was set-up specifically to help them.
The final budget deal approved by state legislators would give volunteer fire departments $10 million of additional assistance more than the last two years. But the decision leaves tens of millions more sitting in the state’s volunteer fire department assistance fund.
“The volunteers could really use that equipment and training right now. It's not helpful after the fire, after the accident,” said Republican State Rep. David Simpson, Dist. 7 from Longview.
In May, an NBC 5 investigation revealed more than 1,600 fire departments have asked for help from the Volunteer Fire Department Fund, but they’ve been turned down because lawmakers have not allowed the fund’s administrators, the Texas Forest Service, to tap into all the money.
The money is collected from a tax on insurance policies that has raised about $30 million a year.
Among the departments waiting for funding – the West Volunteer Fire Department that lost five firefighters in a giant fertilizer plant explosion last April.
The fire department in West operates on a budget of not much more than $10,000 a year and has relied on past assistance from the state to purchase new trucks, equipment and training,
In all, there are $86 million in unfunded requests from Texas volunteer fire departments, despite the fact that there is plenty of money in the fund. By next year, the state comptroller’s office estimates $90 million is expected to be in the account.
But instead of giving all of the money firefighters, the legislature has decided the forest service can only give out about $18 million a year to fire departments over the next two years.
The legislature did take steps to reduce the size of the insurance policy tax in future years, so there won’t be $30 million more piling up in the firefighter fund each year down the road. But that still doesn’t get the rest of the money in the fund to fire departments who say they need more help now.
“The money is there and we’re taxing with misrepresentation,” said Simpson.
Simpson tried to pass amendments that would get more money to the fire departments and said his fellow Republicans are to blame for the fact that firefighters won’t see more of the money collected to help them.
“I'd say, ‘Look at the Appropriations Committee. Look at the leadership of the House and Senate,’" said Simpson.
NBC 5 went to Austin talk with some of the key legislative committee members who made the final budget decisions.
Rep. John Otto led the negotiations on the issue. His staff told NBC 5 Investigates he wasn’t in. When asked if Otto could answer questions in an email, his chief of staff responded, “Not at this time.”
Rep. Myra Crownover’s office said she was not available to talk on camera, but she did email a statement saying, “We increased appropriations by $10 million for volunteer firefighters in this budget. I think that is certainly a step in the right direction.”
NBC 5 also paid a visit to the Office of Finance Committee Chair, Sen. Tommy Williams. In a statement Williams said, "Nobody gets everything. Funding volunteer fire departments had to be weighed along with other potentially life and death items, like Medicaid funding, nursing home funding..."
"The predicament of volunteer fire departments highlights the difficulty we face in prioritizing limited resources among so many worthy and necessary needs,” Williams said.
But because the money was collected specifically for fire departments, some firefighters and state legislators feel it’s dishonest to taxpayers to use it for anything else.
“The money is earmarked for us, why is it just sitting there?” asked Capt. Jonathan Reed with the Briar Volunteer Fire Department in Tarrant County.
“We're lying to them. We're not being people of integrity,” said Simpson.