How Fund Drive Built 5-Bay Station
An old-fashioned fund drive financed the new five-bay fire station in the small farming community of Laurens, Iowa.
The successful effort could set a pattern for other volunteer fire departments in the wake of Proposition 13 fever. A neighboring town already has its own solicitation under way after the failure of a fire station bond issue, and other Iowa fire districts reportedly are considering the idea.
Construction costs can be cut almost in half—especially if the volunteer fire fighters do the finishing work themselves, as they did in Laurens (population 1950).
Chief Peter Hansen admitted he had his doubts when the city council chose the fund drive approach over a proposed bond issue to avoid raising taxes. But, he added, he didn’t anticipate the enthusiastic support from community leaders.
“The secret of our success was good organization with lots of hard work, and they showed the way,” Hansen said, referring mostly to Mayor John Unruh, clothing store owner Ed Benz, veteran volunteer fireman W. E. (Hunk) McKiernan, and Arnie Hersom of the Hersom Construction Company—the general contractor for the station. Along with Hansen, they formed the Laurens Betterment Committee, which spent many hours planning and coordinating the fund drive.
Fortunately, they didn’t have to convince people of the need for a new fire station. Everyone, including the city council, knew that. Fire equipment was housed at three different locations: the cramped old fire station, a gas station and a lumberyard. This allowed the committee to concentrate on fund raising and the rationale for giving.
Step one was to obtain firm bids for materials and erecting the main structure of the steel frame building that would include a 75 by 40-foot area for equipment storage and a brick-faced 30 by 30-foot meeting room, office and rest room area.
The bids totaled $88,953.17, which became the fund drive goal.
Using this information and other financial data from the county auditor, the coordinating committee put together an inexpensive black and white brochure with a simple sketch of the new station, the floor plan and appropriate details, including reasons for donating money.
The major reason was the comparative cost. With public donations, the station could be built for the $88,953, along with an estimated $25,000 worth of free labor from the 20 volunteer fire fighters, who included plumbers, electricians, carpenters, mechanics, roofers, welders and other skilled craftsmen.
With a bond issue and no volunteer labor, the estimated cost was $205,000. Included in this estimate were such necessary extras as professional engineering and architect fees, interest on the bonds, election costs, attorney fees, etc.
In addition, the brochure—distributed widely by the volunteer fire fighters—pointed out that all donations would be tax deductible. Then came the crucial part—individual solicitations.
“This is where the planning and organization paid off,” Hansen commented.
He said the committee divided the fire district into three parts: commercial/industrial, rural and residential. Committee members decided to call on the business firms, and they selected about 60 volunteer canvassers—many from the Laurens Jaycees—to call on 10 homes each. Fund-raising letters were sent to absentee property owners.
Prior to the start of solicitations in August 1978, the coordinating committee held an instruction session that all canvassers were expected to attend. The instructions covered when and how to contact people, what to say, answers to probable questions, how to donate, etc.
Hansen stressed the need for proper training and motivation of the canvassers because they had to be convincing:
“We didn’t want them to just go up to a house and say, ‘I’m here to collect for the fire station fund.’”
According to the Laurens chief, the canvassers knocked on the door and asked to come in and sit down and discuss the new fire station. Each session took up to an hour and a half. The canvassers gave out one of the informational brochures, went over all the facts and answered questions.
“They also got around to the assessed valuation of each home,” Hansen explained. “If, for example, an assessed valuation was $10,000, the canvasser suggested that 1 percent—or $100— would be a reasonable donation.”
The canvassers also showed how 1 percent of the assessed valuation for most homes would be less than the tax increase under a bond issue.
Range of donations
The results, he said with pride, were gratifying, “People gave from $5 to $1500 apiece, with a number of people—especially those in the rural areas—at the higher end.”
Some farmers set aside a load of corn or soybeans for the fund drive, which resulted in such odd dollar donations as $494 or $614.50.
In giving his check, one farmer said he was paying back the fire fighters for the time they tried to save his son several years ago.
“Those who had received fire department services in the past were the most willing givers,” Hansen recalled.
He also noted that the committee expected a few detractors and, he said, “We did get some doors slammed in our face, and there were a few who felt the firemen just wanted a place to drink beer.
Belated interest by critic
One of the critics took a belated interest after construction started, Hansen recalled, with a grin, and made weekly visits to the new station to keep up with what was going on.
While the canvassers moved throughout the community accepting checks or asking pledges that were to be paid by June 1979, the coordinating committee began to solicit businessmen.
The committee started with the largest firms: a wholesale grocery company that employs 500 persons, a hydraulic cylinder factory employing 200, the bank, and the farmers cooperative grain elevator complex. The Laurens business community provided good cooperation and within six weeks, the fund drive had raised about $70,000.
Mayor Unruh then told the contractor to go ahead and said that if the fund drive fell short, the city would make up the difference somehow through internal funding. However, by the time the fire station was completed in May 1979, the fund drive had reached $87,000— just $1000 short—and contributions were still coming in. Hansen confidently expected the goal of $88,953 to be achieved sometime this summer.
That works out to an average donation of $129.86 for each of the 685 families in the Laurens Fire District.
Hansen is cautious about recommending the fund drive approach to other volunteer departments that may need a new fire station. He said it depends entirely on the community, “especially whether it can find the people who will take time to do the work. It takes a lot of time.”
Tables, chairs, stove, refrigerator and other furnishings for the Laurens Fire Station have been paid with $6000 previously raised by the volunteer fire fighters through their annual Fire Prevention Week activities.
Makeup of department
The four bays of the new fire station house the department’s emergency van with custom interior; a 1962 Ford 1000-gallon tanker; a 1969 International 1250-gallon tanker; a 1954 International pumper; and a 1974 Ford pumper. The department also has custody of a Jeep, owned by the state forestry department, that is used for grass fires.
The 20 volunteer fire fighters include Chief Hansen, an assistant chief, three captains, a training officer and a six-man emergency squad. Seventeen of the 20 carry advanced first aid and CPR cards. Each year, approximately half the department attends the state fire training school at Ames.
Average response time for the first vehicle to roll is within three minutes, “perhaps a little less now that we have the new station,” according to Hansen.
“Having raised the money the way we did, it shows a small community can work together,” the chief commented. “The mayor is real proud of it, and it’s a big boost for the morale of our volunteers.”