Who’s In Charge?

BY STEVEN A. SAVIA, CMC

An interesting question is surfacing relating to the relationship between a volunteer fire department and the political jurisdiction within which it operates. First, some background.

Volunteer departments have prided themselves on being close to the community. Often, the funding that enabled a department to purchase equipment and provide services came from citizens in the form of donations, raffle purchases, barbecue dinners, bingo, and carnivals. It wasn’t unusual to drive through a community and see a large, red, billboard-like thermometer indicate the level of contributions reached and that needed to meet fund-raising goals. Community fund-raising activities gave both the department and the community a sense of ownership. That sense of ownership has been key to the continuing participation of volunteers and the confidence of the community that its fire department would be there when needed.

JURISDICTION-FUNDED DEPARTMENTS

Many departments still rely on contributions and fund-raising activities to finance capital purchases and operations. But for more than a decade, an increasing number of volunteer fire departments and volunteer rescue squads have accepted tax receipts as financial support. Sometimes, this is in the form of a tax district established specifically to aid a volunteer department in providing emergency services. Sometimes a municipal or county government decided to contribute to the department through its general revenues, making the department part of the budget. Finally, in some circumstances, the volunteer department was folded into the jurisdiction, and the vast majority of funding came from the jurisdiction’s general tax base through the budget.

Tax support certainly helped in capital acquisitions that grew to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Under these arrangements, some volunteer departments have become the envy of many municipal departments that had to divide their tax funds between capital and personnel. Volunteer departments have the advantage of concentrating their tax funds toward the purchase of apparatus.

IS THERE A TRADE-OFF?

Did volunteer departments give up something to get those tax dollars? Is there a quid pro quo? The answer isn’t as clear as one might like. In many situations, departments enter into contracts with the local jurisdiction to provide services. The contracts often come with conditions: Some provisions are related to performance, others to governance. In many of these contracts, the clarity of covenants or expectations leaves something to be desired. Unfortunately, that leaves the issue of who’s in charge subject to significant interpretation.

In other situations, the department is viewed as a subunit of the political jurisdiction. Notice, I use the term “viewed”: It often is not a formalized relationship. In these situations, the lack of agreed-on definition or role, responsibility, and expectation causes uncertainty and tension. This becomes even more intense when the volunteers become part of a combined department.

So what happens when those contract provisions aren’t met? What happens when a political jurisdiction decides to get involved in the department’s organization and operations?

First, it’s important to emphasize that no one situation dictates how other relationships may resolve problems or disagreements. The political strength of a department can often affect how issues are worked out. A community’s culture of volunteerism can also shape the relationship between a volunteer department and a municipality or county.

Second, be aware that there are extremes. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, the town of Riverdale Park had a conflict with the volunteer fire department over performance expectations. The conflict escalated into a legal order that locked out the volunteers. The volunteers reportedly hid a piece of equipment so that it couldn’t be used by county-paid personnel, and the town requested assistance from neighboring departments to respond in situations that the volunteer department normally would have handled. The municipality had purchased the fire station, obviously with tax dollars, and, as a result, owned the station. The volunteers apparently owned some of the equipment and believed that, as part of an independent organization, they did not need to adhere to instruction from the Prince George’s County Fire Department. The situation was ultimately resolved through a formal Memorandum of Understanding.

Another extreme example is the California department that had its volunteer members resign because of conflicts with the special district board. The all-volunteer department and the district board basically are in disagreement over who’s in charge. At this writing, the conflict remains unresolved.

ESTABLISHING ULTIMATE AUTHORITY

So when taxes are used to fully or partially fund a volunteer department, what is its relationship to the corporate political jurisdiction it serves? Attorneys are not in agreement over this issue, and sufficient cases have not gone to court so that definitive case law could be developed in this area. Also, that relationship may depend on the legal structure of the volunteer department and its charter.

What do we know? First, if a contract is involved, it should specify the roles and responsibilities of the contracting parties-what does the volunteer department give in consideration for those tax contributions? This should include specific language as to who has the authority to make a final determination regarding interpretation of the contract’s terms. Such language would clearly identify who has the ultimate authority of decision. If the contract doesn’t include such language, problems lurk under the surface. In all likelihood, each party thinks it is the ultimate determiner of the department’s fate.

Second, remember that the purse strings are the strongest strings of all. Political science literature puts it another way: He who controls the purse controls the relationship. If the department depends on tax contributions for its lifeblood, then removal of those funds would result in shutdown. What then results is a battle over equipment, station(s), and the assignment of personnel. In such situations, no one wins, least of all the citizens everyone is supposed to be serving.

ISSUES TO CONSIDER

What can be done to avoid problems such as those described above, given the continuing trend of volunteer departments’ turning to municipalities and counties for financial support? I suggest the following considerations.

  • Clarify contract provisions. Ensure there is agreement on well-defined terms and conditions, especially who is the final arbiter for interpretation of the contract.
  • Obtain a written agreement stating who owns the equipment and who is responsible for apparatus and personnel deployment.
  • Understand that accepting public funds means that public scrutiny can’t be far behind. If your department is going to accept tax funds, assume you will be perceived as a public agency.
  • Solidify community relationships. Often, those relationships aren’t as strong as they were when the department held fund-raisers. There are many techniques for reestablishing those community connections.
  • Keep up volunteer participation.

STEVEN A. SAVIA, CMC, is a founding principal of The Sage Group, a professional management consulting and public policy research firm specializing in serving local government organizations. He teaches a variety of public administration and fire service subjects. Savia has a B.A. from George Mason University and an M.A. from Florida Atlantic University and has pursued doctoral study in public policy at the University of North Carolina. He is a past national chairman of the Institute of Management Consultants. He has been involved in the fire/rescue service for more than 30 years.

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