Fire chiefs say House Bill 4 will make it harder for them to prepare yearly budgets

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AZTEC — San Juan County Fire Chief Craig Daugherty says a bill signed into law by Gov. Susana Martinez in January essentially stripped $1.68 million from the fire department.

House Bill 4 does two main things — it changes how state fire fund money is distributed and causes more than $78 million of law enforcement and fire suppression funding statewide to revert to the state general fund. In her message, Martinez said she was able to sign the bill because these cuts are one-time, nonrecurring transfers.

The law mandates that the money the fire department has received from the state fire protection grant will revert to the state general fund on June 30. In addition to the money reverting, the fire department will not be able to apply for the grant for fiscal year 2018 because the state is temporarily suspending it.

"It's placed all of the emergency services and the fire departments in a crux," said County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter during a county commission meeting on Tuesday.

The bill passed the Senate on a 40 to 0 vote and passed the House on a 40 to 26 vote. It was one of two bills addressed in a Change.org petition that received 900 signatures. The petition asked that the bill be rejected because it would take money from county and city fire departments to replenish a deficit in the state's general fund.

"The state has been using local governments and the schools as a pack horse, if you will, to carry the deficit," Carpenter said.

The money in the state fire protection fund comes from a tax on insurance.

"This money is money that you pay taxes on for fire services," Daugherty said.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said the intent of the solvency bill was to distribute the funds in the same year the state receives the money.

"They've been getting their money a year earlier than they should be," Lundstrom said when reached by phone Friday.

She said HB 4 will change the distribution from an annual to a monthly basis. However, Daugherty said the distributed amount could be variable, making it hard to budget. He said he has not been given a schedule for when the distributions will take place and there is discussion of making the distributions quarterly rather than monthly.

The unpredictability, Daugherty said, makes it hard to plan for future purchases. Both Daugherty and Bloomfield Fire Chief John Mohler attended the House of Representatives session when the bill was passed.

"We just don't know at this point how the money is going to come to us," Mohler said.

Mohler said the annual payment allowed him to plan and budget for the entire year.

"I'm trying to save as much money as I can this year," he said.

Daugherty is also trying to save money this year, which means he is putting off some fire equipment purchases. During a county commission meeting on Tuesday, the commission approved using local bond money in combination with state funding to replace a 1984 mini-pumper — a smaller version of the large fire trucks used for structure fire suppression.

The new mini-pumper will have an extended cab to meet requirements that each mini-pumper should hold four people. The current one only holds two. The new one will also have four-wheel drive, enabling the county fire department to navigate muddy roads, according to Flora Vista Division Chief Kevin Jones.

While the mini-pumper is a needed purchase that should have been made years ago, Daugherty has eliminated other fire apparatus purchases.

"We are holding back a lot of our purchases," he said.

 Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.

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