Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
As the Region of Queens Municipality (RQM) works out its 2021-22 budget, it's grappling with how to put a dollar value on a volunteer fire service that, many might say, is invaluable.
Port Medway Fire Chief Kendall Farmer made the case for an uptick in funding for Queens County's five fire departments at the RQM council meeting March 9.
He outlined what the departments currently receive from the municipality - whose responsibility it is to supply fire protection - how the departments use the money, and then asked for more.
"We will give up whatever is going on in our lives to help someone else. I'm proud of the 176 firefighters we have," said Farmer during his presentation. But he warned, "If we do not do something different, we will not survive. We need your help financially to keep the fire service going."
Farmer explained that the departments are looking to the region simply to cover their basic needs – such as rescue gear, fuel, vehicles and insurance. He exhibited a spreadsheet showing that the five fire departments have about $335,000 in accumulated debt, close to half of which is the result of purchasing rescue, pumper and tanker trucks. That's not including funds spent on hoses, nozzles, pagers, equipment repairs, safety testing, or hall and station maintenance.
What does the increase mean?
Currently, the total expenditure by RQM on fire services specifically is about $750,000, or about 8.2 cents per $100 of assessment for property owners.
The ask from the fire departments would equal close to an additional five cents per $100 of the assessed property value, or about $450,000 per year.
The current tax rate for property owners are: $1.03 per $100 of assessed property outside of the former Town of Liverpool. The commercial rate is $2.13 per $100 of assessment. Inside the former town boundaries, the tax rate is $1.92 per $100 for residential and $3.02 for commercial properties.
During his presentation, Farmer said he believed that residents would be willing to take on this extra expense to help their departments. He later said in an email to LighthouseNOW that they are not asking for a tax increase necessarily, just asking the RQM to increase their funding in any way they can work it out.
RQM Mayor Darlene Norman wasn't so sure the support was there for the increase.
"It's a lot of money," she told LighthouseNOW. "I don't know how the public can handle such a sticker shock."
Factors affecting the financial strain
The current truck replacement plan sees each department get funding for a new truck every five years on a rotational basis. While the region sets aside money each year to cover the fund, it's falling short.
The funding equals $275,000 for a new pumper/tanker truck, which run at more than $500,000 to buy. The fire services want the allocations increased to $500,000. For a rescue unit, just $100,000 is given towards a unit that costs a minimum of $300,000. Meanwhile the extra cost of the units are to be covered by the fire departments through loans from financial institutions.
According to Farmer, combined the fire departments paid in excess of $58,000 last year in loan interest alone. On top of that is the rising cost of everything from general equipment to utilities.
Currently, the municipality schedules a two per cent rise in funding for the fire services every five years. The departments are asking for a two per cent raise every year to keep up with the cost of inflation.
Turnout gear, which includes bunker pants, jacket, helmet, boots, gloves, and flash hoods, were paid for up until recently at a total cost of $130,000. However, due to an error, the money was drawn from the funding for new vehicles, reported Farmer.
The departments want costs for those items covered as well. With new Occupational Health and Safety standards that were introduced recently, all bunker gear must be replaced every 10 years, self-containing breathing apparatus every 20 years and carbon fibre bottles for the breathing apparatus's every 15 years.
The cost for one firefighter to be outfitted with the gear and equipment is about $17,000, according to Farmer.
What RQM provides
Overall, RQM provides more than $1.1 million toward emergency services (including fire departments, workers' compensation, liability insurance, safety training, medical insurance, wet hydrants in Liverpool, and payments for the Liverpool fire hall). Of the $750,000 of that it uses for the fire departments, it sets aside two per cent per year toward the truck replacement fund.
A closer look
Farmer used the Port Medway fire department as an example for funding. Port Medway received $20,755.98 in grant funding from the region in quarterly payments.
Of that funding, taking off insurance and radio licenses, they received just $11,939.99 to deal with all of the other basic needs.
In a statement of receipts and disbursements for the year ended March 31, 2020, the Port Medway Fire Department incurred a deficit of close to $38,000. Vehicle maintenance and fuel alone cost $18,762.08.
"Firefighters are doing their part. It's time for the Region of Queens to step up to show their support as well," Farmer suggested in his presentation. "We expect a lot of our firefighters through training, meetings, and showing up when their pagers go off. I can't stress enough that the fire service is essential," he said.