State cuts could trim fire training
The successful rescue of Mark Malecha from a grain elevator in February was due, in large part, to the expertise of Minnesota Task Force One - a group of specially trained firefighters and rescue personnel from Minneapolis and Edina.
That rescue could have cost the city of Farmington thousands of dollars, but it didn't, thanks to the fact that Task Force One is paid for by state funding and grants. However, a proposed budget cut at the state level has firefighters everywhere, including Farmington, a little concerned because it affects specialized training like Task Force One gets.
Established by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2006, the Fire Safety Fund was set up to help fund firefighter education and training. Every taxpayer in the state contributes to the fund, through a surcharge to insurance premiums - about $5.20 annually, according to the League of Minnesota Cities. It's listed on everyone's premium notice as the Minnesota Fire Safety Account.
That money is set aside, said LMC's Anne Finn, so its is available for firefighter training, state chemical and decontamination response teams and the state fire marshall's office.
There's about $12 million in that budget right now, but that amount is likely to drop significantly during this budget session, because legislators are eyeing it as money that can be reallocated to help pare down the state's budget deficit.
"It's potentially misleading to the public," Finn said. "It's a line item on the insurance premium. The public is being led to believe they're paying for it, but instead, it's being siphoned off and funneled into the general account, where it can be used for a lot of things."
As it stands, Gov. Pawlenty has proposed a $9.9 million decrease to that budget over the next two years. On Monday, both the House and Senate debated the item as part of a supplemental budget item. The House proposed cutting the fund by $10.9 million over the next two years; the Senate proposed $5.7 million in cuts.
Finn says that means the writing is on the wall when it comes to the Fire Safety Fund.
"When the House, Senate and governor have proposed cuts, it's just a matter of how much it will be," Finn said.
Representative Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington), though, intends to fight to keep the Fire Safety Fund intact. As the lone Republican on the conference committee that will debate the cuts, Garofalo intends to fight against both the recommendations of the Democrats, and the Governor.
"I think it's a bad idea to be using this fund. This is a pretty big insurance policy. These funds were collected with the purpose of fire training. They need to be spent for fire services, not for other programs," Garofalo said Tuesday afternoon. "We should be leaving those funds alone."
Garofalo and the rest of the conference committee were entering initial discussions Tuesday evening.
The fire marshals of Dakota County are also paying close attention to the matter. They're looking at where supplemental funds could come from to make up for those lost at the state level. The answer? They fear it could come back to individual cities and their taxpayers.
In the case of Task Force One, about $700,000 is allocated from that fund on an annual basis, Farmington fire marshal John Powers said. Making cuts to the Fire Safety Fund would also affect the Dakota County Special Operations Team, which also receives funding through the Fire Safety Fund. The DCSOT is made up of firefighters, EMTs and police from Dakota County, but they are also a division of Task Force One.
But, Finn says, that's the whole reason this account was set up in the first place. Many fire departments - Farmington's included - are made up of volunteers. They need to be trained adequately to handle the day-to-day operations.
And when necessary, like when a man gets stuck in a grain elevator, the assistance of teams who have been specially trained is especially needed.
"In other parts of the state, where people use chemicals or other types of equipment, they rely on those special response teams," Finn said. "(The Fire Safety Fund) is also for preventing property damage, contamination and those types of things. If they're not properly trained, they can't recruit anyone to do those jobs. If they don't have the right equipment, they can't respond."
Firefighters are not the only ones who could see cuts to their training budget this year. Gov. Pawlenty and Sen. Linda Higgins (DFL-Minneapolis) have also proposed cuts to the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board's budget for reimbursing agencies for police training.
According to the POST Board, $396 was allocated for each eligible police officer in 2009. The proposal under consideration decreases that amount to $348 in 2010, and $339 in 2011.