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Fire Services Director Sounds the Alarm for Additional Funding

June 29, 2006 – While recent appropriations have allowed Fire Services to add more equipment and employees, the agency still needs funding and manpower in order to comply with federal Homeland Security regulations, make preparations for hurricane season and run its day-to-day operations, Merwin C. Potter, Fire Services director, said during the first round of budget hearings Thursday.
Speaking in support of a $17.6 million proposed budget request for fiscal year 2007, Potter added that Fire Services would need additional money to build a state-of-the-art fire complex in each district, provide personnel training and perform repairs and upgrades to the territory's stations, among others.
The request – which reflects a $1.02 million increase from fiscal year 2006 – includes $12.04 million for personnel services (enough funding for 245 filled positions, 23 vacancies and 38 new positions); $381,000 combined for overtime and night and holiday pay; and $408,000 for capital outlays.
He also said the agency would be requesting an additional $5 million supplemental budget to provide for additional personnel, assist the Hazardous Materials Unit, and pay outstanding obligations to the V.I. Water and Power Authority. "There would also be $430,000 for fire trucks for the Dorothea and Bordeaux fire stations," Potter said.
St. Thomas-St. John Fire Chief Glen Francis also said the department needs improved infrastructure – better living quarters for firefighters and enough space to house new fire trucks and other equipment coming into the territory. "Right now, we do have the need for more manpower …. But we don't have the living or sleeping quarters necessary for those men. And we need more equipment, but the only place we can put the trucks right now is outside, which causes them to deteriorate when there's bad weather," Francis said.
However, Sen. Louis P. Hill, chair of the Finance Committee, said the Legislature would not consider the supplemental budget request until $4 million worth of financing recently approved for the agency by the Public Finance Authority is spent.
Potter agreed and said that some of the provisions included in the supplemental budget request were already included in the PFA proposal. "Since we didn't know whether or not we would be getting the funding from the PFA, we duplicated some of the items in the supplemental budget," he explained after the meeting. "It was just a backup."
During the meeting, Potter said the PFA would also provide the funding for the construction of two new state-of-the-art facilities, which would include a training room, conference and administrative classrooms, a training tower, apparatus bay, and living and dining quarters for the firefighters.
General Fund money is needed, however, for the installation of SMARTCAD software equipment – a computer and radio program, which will allow all departments to simultaneously communicate with each other. Potter said if the software is not installed, Fire Services would not be able to receive federal assistance in case of an emergency. "According to a directive we received from the federal government, we would have to prove that we are able to maintain that communication in times of disaster," he said. "Right now, our first priority is complying with that directive."
Funds are "critically needed" for new firefighters, Potter added. He explained that the agency currently has 11 recruits on St. Croix and 10 recruits on St. Thomas coming online within the next year. "However, that is not enough for us to fulfill the mandates set out by the Department of Homeland Security," he said. "That's why we included 38 new positions in the budget."
After the meeting, Potter explained that the agency had originally requested funding for 74 new positions. "But we have gotten more funding during the past fiscal year than any other," he said. "So I'm happy with whatever I can get."
During the meeting, however, Potter said that some of the money appropriated by the Legislature has not been released by the Office of Management and Budget – including $300,000 for the purchase of equipment for the Dorothea Fire Station on St. Thomas and the payment of outstanding night pay for firefighters.
Additionally, OMB has not released $500,000 appropriated by the Legislature for repairs to a fire station on St. Croix. According to Evette Hodge, senior budget analyst for OMB, the funding source for the appropriation came from interest earned on bond proceeds – an account which, she said, is overappropriated.
Senators requested that OMB submit a statement of how much is available in the account and what projects the money is supposed to pay for.
While Sen. Usie R. Richards suggested Fire Services look to their revenue stream for extra money, Potter said the agency has had problems generating a profit. Potter explained the department is supposed to sign off on all new and renewed business licenses and collect a fee after inspecting the various buildings to make sure they are in compliance with fire safety laws.
However, he explained that the agency is presently "having problems" with the Department and Licensing and Consumer Affairs "who grant the licenses without our input."
To solve this problem, Potter advocated that the agencies like Fire Services join together with DLCA, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, the Health Department and the Police Department to pool resources. "That way, we won't have to deal with situations like this, or worry about a lack of manpower, funding, etc. If we need a car, for example, we should be able to go to VIPD or another agency and borrow one. That would help us out a lot," he said after the meeting.
Present during Thursday's meeting were Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Roosevelt C. David, Liston Davis, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Hill, Neville James, Norman Jn Baptiste, Richards and Ronald E. Russell.
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