Firefighting officials lambasted Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Thursday, saying his proposed budget fix would make firefighting even riskier by taking away dedicated training funds to help erase the state deficit.
"The governor is raiding this dedicated fund that insures firefighters are properly trained and equipped," said Tom Thornberg, president of the Minnesota Professional Firefighters union. "The governor's budget doesn't protect public safety or firefighters."
At issue is $9.9 million in training funds, revenue raised by a surcharge on fire insurance policies. The sum is a relatively modest part of the $825 million in cuts Pawlenty recommended Monday, but firefighters and chiefs say it would be a blow to training and emergency response capability at a time when city finances already are stretched.
Thornberg spoke at a St. Paul news conference as part of a statewide media campaign by a fire service coalition seeking to protect the money.
Pawlenty's chief spokesman, Brian McClung, said the governor's plan would tap surplus funds in the Fire Safety Surcharge account and still leave $2 million available for training.
"We recognize there are some difficult reductions in the governor's budget-balancing plan," McClung said.
"He shouldn't be taking any of it. It is not surplus money. It was collected for these [training] uses," said Nile Zikmund, fire chief of the Blaine, Spring Lake Park and Mounds View joint department.
The Fire Safety Surcharge is a 0.65 percent fee that fire insurers charge homeowners and commercial policy holders. The money pays for the state fire marshal's office and for training local firefighters and regional emergency teams. The surcharge was passed by the Legislature and signed by Pawlenty in 2006, replacing a tax that had been in place. However, the money can't be spent until the governor and Legislature authorize it.
Response teams down
Zikmund said five emergency teams created in 2004 to respond to building collapses have seen their numbers dwindle from 200 to 100 qualified members because of a lack of team training funds. Other regional teams handle emergencies involving chemicals and other hazardous materials.
"The governor said he was not going to touch public safety issues. He just did that for the fire service," said Dan Winkel, president of the Minnesota State Fire Department Association and Andover's fire chief. The association represents about 18,000 volunteer firefighters and 790 fire departments.
McClung said "the governor's budget preserved core state public safety programs and protected funding for areas like the State Patrol, state prison guards and other programs."
He added: "In this case, we are proposing to transfer surplus funds from a special revenue account to help balance the budget. In many other cases, programs would receive direct cuts."
Since the law took effect in July 2007, about $2 million has been appropriated to reimburse 400 fire departments for training costs, Zikmund said. The departments requested $5 million in reimbursement and had to cover the balance with local funds, he said. He said about half of the state's 20,000 firefighters, mostly volunteers, have not received basic training set by national fire service standards.
Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, and Rep. Steve Smith, R-Mound, chief authors of the 2006 surcharge law, have introduced bills to appropriate $4.4 million from the surcharge fund for training of firefighters and regional teams.
Asked about Pawlenty's proposal, Rest said: "I think it is a mistake to try and move that money. ... If those dollars are going to be taken away, I think the taxpayers have a right to know why that training is going to be diminished."
Jim Adams • 612-673-7658