Can fire chiefs win the budget battle?

Relationship building, understanding motives and creative thinking are some of the keys to victory

SAN ANTONIO — There are the rare fire chiefs who never worry about budgets or funding. For the rest, it can make or break the quality and quantity of emergency services a department can deliver.

Deputy Chief John Oprandy of the Albemarle County (Va.) Department of Fire and Rescue is among the majority. He and the county's Deputy Executive Doug Walker were quick to tell the nearly full room at their educational session at IAFC's Fire-Rescue International Conference that they don't have a blank check for fire service needs. 

John Oprandy (right) and Doug Walker (left) discuss how chiefs can effectively handle budgets and funding at the FRI Conference.
John Oprandy (right) and Doug Walker (left) discuss how chiefs can effectively handle budgets and funding at the FRI Conference. (Photo/Rick Markley)

They also have a growing gap between the projected cost of providing services and the projected revenue coming in. It's a familiar story. 
"Budgeting is about choice," Walker said. "And it is a reflection of values."

During their 90-minute presentation, Oprandy and Walker laid out two case studies in their jurisdiction where budgeting and bridging the gap between the fire department, the administration and the elected officials were crucial to success. 

One case involved a SAFER grant to hire career firefighters to the combination department. The plan at the time of the grant application was to replace some of the additional career hires with volunteers once the grant funding expired. 

Despite a recruitment push, they were unable to find enough volunteers necessary to maintain staffing levels. 

The work around involved a bookkeeping move that set aside a percentage of the general fund for the fire service and a one-cent tax increase. The bookkeeping move was an internal one, but the tax hike required elected officials' approval — and ultimately approval by those doing the electing. 

To sell the idea, officials held a series of town hall meetings with fire department leaders on hand to help explain the needs and benefits to the plan. 

The second issue involved building and staffing an additional fire station to cover a growing population, 25 percent of which is 65 or older. The plan was originally agreed to by the board, then drastically pulled back by newly elected officials. 

A board's priorities 10 years ago may not be the same priorities as a current board, Walker said. 

While compromises on staffing — browning out the station on nights and weekends — and building use are in play, the project is still up in the air. 

In both cases, direct community outreach played a key role. The town hall meetings were critical for the tax hike to pay for additional firefighters. And, Oprandy said, having rank-and-file firefighters understand the department's vision and speak to elected officials is effective, as they are seen first as voters and second as firefighters. 

In the case of the new station, the board established a committee of public and private volunteers to examine the issue and make a recommendation — that group will recommend the fire department's plan at an upcoming meeting, which goes against the current board's desire.

Going straight to the public comes with a level of risk. Walker says, if done wrong, it will undermine the trust fire officials need to build with their administrators and elected officials. For example, fire chiefs can be viewed by administrators as directly lobbying officials or the public, he said. 

Both Walker and Oprandy cautioned attendees that elected officials rarely come into the job with much knowledge of fire and emergency services. They need to be educated and often re-educated. And of course, when there's board or council turnover, that process starts anew.

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