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Letters: Governor steals from homeowners' fire service fund

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Minnesota communities and their firefighters have had a long and rocky road in trying to maintain adequate fire protection. The fire protection that all the citizens of Minnesota believe in and rely on, in their greatest time of need, must be the best.

Twenty thousand firefighters in Minnesota answer the call for help, from you the citizens, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Around 18,000 of these dedicated, highly trained fire service personnel do so with little to no compensation. Many do this for 20 years or more in our communities. I heard from a gentleman just the other day that stated he has been a firefighter from the age of 16 and is now approaching 70. Talk about dedication!

After many years of hard work with our legislators, the fire services of Minnesota were able to establish a "Fire Safety Account" (MN Laws 2971.06) in 2006 that is specifically dedicated to fire services. This special revenue account was established to hold the newly created insurance "surcharge" on homeowners and certain commercial insurance policies. The bill also abolished the fire insurance tax which had been in law for decades, the proceeds of which went into the state general fund. The law also created a Fire Service Advisory Committee to help determine how the funds should be spent.

Statutorily, Fire Safety Account money can be spent on one of three items: state fire marshal funding, firefighter training, and grant programs that have regional or statewide impact.

This special fund was to insure the continued viability of fire service in Minnesota. The fire services had just started to benefit from this account by grants for training available to fire departments in Minnesota. The fire services had also just started to benefit from this account by the desperately needed restoration of some of the State Fire Marshal's staffing that had not been filled due to lack of general fund budget dollars previously trimmed by the governor.

The funding from the Fire Safety Account is not a tax assessed by the State of Minnesota. In the law, 2971.06 Subdivision 1, Section (b), it is described as a "surcharge" and it specifically says "may not be considered premium for any other purpose." If this is the law, then why is Gov. Pawlenty trying to take it?

It is an incredibly small amount that each of us pay when we purchase our homeowner's insurance. This is not a tax, but a surcharge which is part of your insurance premium. The reason this has been stated twice is that for some reason the governor thinks this special dedicated account is tax dollars. It is our opinion that the governor made a mistake in his line item veto actions previously, and now he is making another mistake. Quite simply, the governor is acting irresponsibly and has lost touch with all reality!

Gov. Pawlenty has already reduced the Local Government Aid (LGA) numerous times, and we all know the devastating impact that is having on our communities. The Fire Safety Account was established to help protect fire services from trying financial periods when tax revenues were short.

When the LGA reduction is compounded by his recent raiding of this Fire Safety Account, he is stating that he has no care or concern for any citizen within the boundaries of Minnesota.

Some interesting information about this account:

If the governor is allowed to steal this account, it will amount to $6.9-million in FY 2010 and $3-million in FY 2011. (See it at http://www.mmb.state.mn.us/doc/budget/bud-op/op10/supp10.pdf page 33.)

He is basically emptying our Fire Safety Account by taking millions over the two-year period that will devastate the fire services in Minnesota. Again, these are not tax dollars, these are funds from your fire insurance premiums that are currently going to help protect you in your time of need.

The State Fire Marshal's Office has lost 18-20 staff positions since the mid 1990's -- these are critical positions the State Fire Marshal's Office has gone without, and within the last year has just started to refill, and now the governor is stealing this funding he has no right to touch. Being conservative, if the State Fire Marshal's Office regains only 10-12 positions, the cost would be around $1.6-million for the two years and this would include training for these positions as well and the materials needed. Again, that would be funded with the small fraction of a percent from your fire insurance premiums, not tax dollars.

Every firefighter in Minnesota has continuing training to refresh and enhance their capabilities, which cost 100's to 1,000's of dollars per firefighter each year. This is in addition to the cost of training a "new" recruit firefighter for your community. Every new firefighter, and this is a minimum, will cost a fire department between $4,000 to $5,000, which includes initial training, personal protection equipment (pants, coat, boots, helmet, fire resistant hood, gloves, flashlight, radio, immunizations, physical exam, and other small items), and additional items related to firefighting at the scene of a fire.

If the attrition rate is 1 in 20 per year, this means the fire services will replace approximately 1,000 firefighters per year, which simply means that approximately $4- to $5-million a year to just be able to finance new recruits or $10-million for the two-year period. But yet the governor proposes to steal this account and apparently has determined that your community does not deserve it or need it.

There are many other programs that the fire services operate for the protection of Minnesotans. One is the decontamination trailers that are utilized in hazardous material spills or contamination situations. These specially designed trailers allow the firefighters to remove contamination from the site of an incident. As you are well aware, there is a cost involved in using these trailers. These trailers need to be kept in good working order, and restocked after each use. Statewide, this costs significant dollars, especially when utilized.

As you can see, the few items that are listed above more than deplete the revenues that are collected and placed into the Fire Safety Account for sustaining the fire services and statewide projects. This account is set up to augment the already greatly stressed city budgets and fire departments around the state.

And please remember, 20,000 of your fellow citizens, of which 18,000 are volunteers, need you to tell your legislators and the governor that this is stealing and will not be tolerated by you. You, along with all of the citizens of Minnesota, are the owners of this great state. Remind them of this when contacting them.

The Minnesota State Volunteer Firefighters Association Board went on record Feb. 18 unanimously opposing Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposal to transfer millions from the Fire Safety Account to help bail out the state's budget deficit. However, motions to request the Minnesota Attorney General to give a decision on the legality of the governor's proposal were withdrawn after board members speculated that it would have been a conflict of interest because the Attorney General is currently defending the governor in a case against his use of unallotment in the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Please help your local firefighters in stopping this theft by the governor.

Calvin A. Larson

Shevlin

Chair

Minn. State Volunteer

Firefighters Association

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