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Volunteer fire chiefs uneasy over plan to use fire levy to pay career firefighter salaries

Volunteer fire chiefs weighed in a on plan to use $4 million from the county’s fire levy to pay the salaries of some career firefighters.

The majority of the volunteer chiefs who spoke to the Executive Committee of the Prince William County Fire Rescue Association. It’s the organization that binds and governs the county’s volunteer and career fire services, headed by the County Fire Chief Kevin McGee,

The majority of the volunteer chiefs expressed fears that county officials will raid the fire levy, traditionally used to pay for daily operations and equipment purchases at the county’s 12 volunteer fire stations and one rescue squad.

The fire levy is expected to generate $34.4 million in fiscal 2016. About $30 million of the fire levy revenues generated in 2016 will go to fund fire and rescue operations costs.

The fire levy has a fund balance of $77.8 million and has been used to cash fund county fire and rescue projects such as building new stations and buying new apparatus.

 

Chiefs fear county could become dependent on funds 

County officials say that shifting $4 million from the levy is a needed move to help pay the salaries of career firefighters, more of which are being added to staff stations during what are traditionally volunteer hours, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and holidays, because volunteer companies cannot staff them.

“The [Prince William County Board of Supervisors] feels that when there’s an emergency, citizens want someone to respond to the call, and they don’t care whether or not it is a volunteer or career firefighter,” Prince William Deputy County Executive Christopher Martino told the volunteer chiefs.

The volunteer chiefs agreed.  They also warned that a reliance on levy funds to pay for salaries could lead to a growing dependence on the fund. That could mean having the needed number of career firefighters to respond to calls but not having the cash on hand to replace aging equipment.

“The levy was used to build things a needed, new public safety training center for fire and rescue,” said Dale City Volunteer Fire Department Chief Christopher Hool. “That’s a county-run building, a place where the volunteers have no say so over.”

Hool added that paying for personnel costs for the operation of the the county’s mostly all career fire stations in Gainesville, the Coles District station on Route 234, and the soon-to-be-built Bacon Race fire station adjacent to the Prince William County Government Center, should be taken from the general fund and not from the fire levy.

 

FRA didn’t approve coming budget 

Each year, the Fire and Rescue Association reviews and then votes to approve the coming fiscal year’s fire and rescue budget. The association voted down the proposed $75.1 million 2016 fire and rescue budget at a January meeting. The organization did not meet in February due to a lack of agenda discussion items, according to McGee, and had no other chance to reexamine or approve a budget.

“It’s hard to run a fire and rescue system when we don’t have the cards to play with, and when we don’t have all the information,” said OWL Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jim McAllister. “We’re not allowed to meet with the Board of County Supervisors, [we’re only allowed to meet] with the ones whom we’re impacting their [magisterial] districts… some things need to change.”

McAllister added that some prior year budgets approved by the fire and rescue association are later enlarged with added expenditures and later approved by the Board of County Supervisors.

“Two county medic units were added last year. I’ve gone back and reviewed my documentation, and none of it shows anything about the two new medic units,” added McAllister.

Ultimately, the Board is looking to find savings in the budget after adopting a slightly lower advertised tax rate than what was approved last year. Using $4 million from the levy could be considered a drop in the bucket.

“I think there are some people on the [Board of County Supervisors] who would like us to go farther Martino added that the Board of Supervisors,” said Martino.

McGee said he would include the comments he heard at Wednesday’s executive committee meeting and include them in a report to the Board of County Supervisors.

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