Firefighters speak out against proposed state cuts

Published 7:19 am Friday, March 5, 2010

Firefighters across Minnesota are crying foul over a proposal by Gov. Tim Pawlenty that would cut nearly $10 million from a fire safety training fund — a fund often essential to outstate departments like Austin’s that have limited training budgets.

The potential cut is part of the governor’s larger supplemental budget proposal, which was released last month as a reaction to the state’s roughly $1.2 billion deficit. Firefighters, however, say Pawlenty should keep his hands out of the training fund, which comes from a surcharge paid by homeowners on their insurance policies.

“Rather than raising taxes, he’s stealing money from these fees,” Tom Thornberg, president of the Minnesota Professional Firefighters union, said. “Essentially, he is raising taxes. But he’s hurting services like ours.”

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Brian McClung, a spokesman for the governor, said in an e-mailed statement that the training fund has a $4 million annual surplus. He said $3 million of this annual surplus, plus a transfer from the account’s current balance, would go to the state’s general fund to help solve the deficit.

But Nyle Zikmund, a suburban fire chief and legislative chair of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association, said calling money in the account a “surplus” is misleading. Instead, he likened it to having money in a personal banking account one day but knowing bills have to be paid the next.

“It’s voodoo math,” Zikmund said. “It’s like going to the bank and borrowing $20,000 and saying you now have $20,000. You still owe someone.”

The suburban fire chief added that the governor shouldn’t cut the funds because it’s not state money to begin with — the training account is filled directly through the 0.65 percent surcharge, which costs the average homeowner roughly $5 per year. That provision was established through legislation passed in 2006.

“Homeowners are saying, ‘No, this is wrong,’” Zikmund said. “(The surcharge) is on there for a reason.”

To rally support for this message, Zikmund, Thornberg and others have formed a firefighters’ coalition of sorts to canvas the state. The group held a press conference in St. Paul last month, but are now targeting outstate Minnesota, including cities like Austin.

Chris Grunewald, the local union president at the Austin Fire Department, said money from the state is crucial to training at his department because of a limited budget — Grunewald said the AFD only has $5,000 for training yearly, which amounts to less than $200 per firefighter. Grunewald said the low amount is barely enough to scrape by.

“Two years ago, we had a training coordinator, an actual position for training,” Grunewald said. “Since then, that position has been eliminated. Now, we just have our senior guy do it, whether he’s qualified or not. And it’s hurt us.”

The Austin firefighter said staff ultimately ends up doing a lot of self-training, through online sources and books, which he admits is less than ideal. Making the need for training even more pressing is a recently-passed state law that will require all new firefighters hired after July 1, 2011, to have a license. Currently, only two out of nine full-time Austin firefighters have the comparable certification, and Grunewald said he sees future firefighters paying for their own licenses given the budget constraints.

“I don’t know how those individuals would get trained,” Grunewald said.

Through the state training fund, the AFD could possibly triple their training budget by successfully applying for grant dollars, Zikmund said. But that won’t happen if the proposed cut goes through.

To prevent this, the firefighters coalition is aiming to attract legislative support. Well aware that Pawlenty has veto power regarding budgetary issues, Thornberg, Zikmund and others want to get as many legislators as possible on board to show strength against a potential veto.

Legislation is pending in both the state House and Senate that would call for $4.4 million to be appropriated from the training fund. Essentially, this is the same bill the group looks for annually — though money is collected in the fund year-round, legislative approval is needed to tap into it. However, this year, what is normally a routine bill is garnering a lot more attention because the money could be gone before anyone tries to withdraw.

“We have an unwelcome partner,” Zikmund said.

Pawlenty spokesman McClung said the governor recognizes that “difficult reductions” have to be made. But he said the proposal to slash from the fire safety funding is less severe than other possibilities.

“In this case we are proposing to transfer surplus funds from a special revenue account to help balance the budget,” McClung said in his statement, “while in many other cases, programs would receive direct cuts.”

But firefighters aren’t buying the claim, saying instead that Pawlenty is going back on the 2006 legislation to fund the training account via the surcharges — a bill the governor supported.

“The man who signed the bill into law and said it is good policy is now taking the money,” Zikmund said.