T he Hampton Volunteer Fire Department’s president painted a bleak picture of the organization’s ability to remain solvent if the town doesn’t increase its budget.
Eric Mead said without more money the department will have a difficult time covering its expenses.
“Our expenditures are getting above our head,” Mead said. “There’s no more to cut.”
The fire company is in the early stages of putting together its budget for 2013 and has asked the town for $37,000 to help cover operating expenses.
“We’re asking for a $12,000 increase. We know it’s considerable, but our hands are tied. The bottom line is we’re operating at $40,000, but you’re only giving us $25,000,” Mead said.
He said the department is incurring more expenses due to factors outside of its control, such as unfunded mandates.
The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that all public safety and business radio users who currently use wideband technology (25 kHz) convert to narrowband technology (12.5 kHz or less) by Jan. 1 or face stiff fines.
The objective of the mandate is to increase capacity and efficiency by freeing up space on existing radio spectrum. Proponents say narrowband technology offers improvements in capacity, security, audio quality and coverage.
But for volunteer organizations, like the Hampton Volunteer Fire Department, that use the older technology, the mandate can be costly.
Mead said the cost to convert all of the department’s pagers, personal radios, and truck radios is $2,800.
The department is also required to replace its bunker gear every five years even though the amount it’s used is far less in a smaller department like Hampton than it is in a larger department like Queensbury.
“Our money is getting eaten up by state mandates,” Mead said.
Those mandates are compounded by the fact that one of the department’s trucks, which is nearly 40 years old, needs to be replaced. Mead said a 12-year-old truck will cost $80,000.
The department has applied for grants to cover some of its expenses, but have been turned down. Members have tried fundraising, with some success, but those efforts take up time, which is in short supply for a department that has experienced a 100 percent increase in calls since the same time last year.
“We’re getting to the point where we’re taxing our volunteers beyond their means. They have to train, respond to emergencies and raise nearly half of our money. And it’s been a busy year. We responded to 27 calls this year already. We responded to 27 all of last year.”
Unfortunately the financial woes are all too common, Supervisor Dave O’Brien said. “It’s getting to the point where communities can’t afford fire service.”
One of Salem’s fire departments disbanded and the Skenesborough Volunteer Fire Co. dissolved earlier this year due to financial constraints.
O’Brien, a former volunteer firefighter, pledged the board would do what it could but cautioned the town is restricted by a lack of industry and the tax revenue it generates. They are also bound by the 2 percent tax cap. He said every $2,000 in expenditures represents a 1 percent raise in taxes.
Mead said if the proposal isn’t approved it could result in reduced service, and if the department is unable to remain solvent, everyone’s insurance rates would increase because their homes would be further from the nearest fire department.
“It’s getting harder every day,” he said.