Scott Friedman, NBC 5 Investigates
NBC 5 has learned that millions of dollars collected for volunteer fire departments across the state is being diverted to other needs or sitting unused.
The budgets of most Texas volunteer fire departments are as tiny as the towns they protect.
Making matters worse, NBC 5 Investigates uncovered millions of dollars have been left sitting in a state fund designed to help those volunteer departments protect their towns.
Small towns like West, which lost five firefighters April 17 in an explosion at the West Fertilizer Company, rely on fundraisers to try to cover their basic costs.
“We have a barbeque cook-off once a year and we raise about $10,000. And that’s normally what we buy our equipment with is $10,000,” said Tommy Muska, Mayor of West.
When volunteer fire departments need more money, they often turn to the state’s Volunteer Fire Department Assistance Fund for help.
NBC 5 Investigates learned that in the four months before the explosion in West, the West Volunteer Fire Department filed three requests asking for money from the state to provide funds for new gear, training and a new truck.
Jason Keiningham, program coordinator for the Texas A&M Forest Service, which administers the fund, said they receive requests daily for fire trucks, training and equipment.
“Most of the volunteer fire departments across Texas have financial challenges,” said Keiningham.
Records obtained by NBC 5 Investigates shows the fund currently has about $58 million. The money is collected from state fees on insurance policies and a tax on fireworks. By next year, the fund is expected to grow to $91 million.
Even with that much in the fund the state now only allows administrators to give out $7 million per year. Previously, legislators had allowed up to $23 million per year in disbursements but the allowable limit was slashed by about 70 percent.
The Fire Department Assistance Fund is one of more than 200 dedicated funds state lawmakers have used to help balance the state budget – diverting about $5 billion of money that was originally collected for another purpose.
“We have piggybanks all over our state government,” said State Sen. Kirk Watson, who said the volunteer fire department fund is one victim of what he calls a “dishonest practice” where the “budget gets balanced by using money that was promised to be used for something else. They collect a special tax, but they don’t live up to their promise and that has to change.”
According to the Texas A&M Forest Service, there are more than 1,600 requests from volunteer departments that have not been funded.
In North Texas, 71 volunteer fire departments in 10 counties have asked for more than $6.5 million. But the forest service is unable to fund those needs even though they have the money in the fund.
“You know there's a place where we are and there's a place where we'd like to be. And that gap, you know, is a source of stress for many fire departments across the state,” said Keiningham.
West isn’t the only department asking for help.
“This money is earmarked for us. Why is it just sitting there,” asked Jonathan Reed, with the Briar Volunteer Fire Department in Tarrant County.
Briar has requested $300,000 for a new tanker to help fight fires in neighborhoods where there are no fire hydrants.
The money they raise at boot drives and barbeques won’t cover the cost of a new truck and the price tag is more than three times the department’s annual budget.
“It's real frustrating, because, you know, we're just sitting here. Basically we have to sit around and beg for money,” said Reed.
Briar knows the state’s money can help if it’s available. They already have a truck that was paid for by the forest service.
Even one of the trucks destroyed in West was partially bought with some of the millions the forest service has given out since 2002.
The day after the explosion, the forest service funded an emergency request to help the West VFD buy new protective gear. And the state’s willing to speed up West’s other pending requests for a new truck if the department asks.
"If they were to do that, I believe the funding committee would unanimously approve the award,” said Keiningham.
The mayor of West appreciates the offer, but said the best way the legislature could honor his fallen firefighters would be to make more money available to all volunteer departments across the state.
“To maybe memorialize them in some way, where it was for the greater good, it would be an honor for them I think,” said Muska.
Watson has proposed Senate Joint Resolution 24 to phase out the practice of diverting funds. This proposed amendment to the state constitution would require a legislative vote on each individual fund that lawmakers would divert and create a timetable for weaning the state from this practice.
However, the measure has not received a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee.
Earlier this month, the Texas House gave a preliminary approval to a bill that would install a $4 billion cap in unspent dedicated accounts. However, that cap would expire in 2015.
Some appropriations committee members argue the state can’t afford to end the diversions right away.
“Unfortunately, the reality is that the state does not have the financial resources to abolish this practice in one session,” said Rep. Diane Patrick in a statement.
Patrick has supported legislation capping the amount of money diverted from dedicated funds.