By Sheryl Oswalt
Bringing six local governments together in 1999 to form the South Kalamazoo County Fire Authority was a seldom-seen act of political initiative, according to Bob Thompson, supervisor of Schoolcraft Township in that year.
The communities determined that it was no longer feasible for them to operate fire protection services individually as the expense was overwhelming their budgets. Those participating in this ground-breaking cooperation included townships of Wakeshma, Prairie Ronde, Brady and Schoolcraft and the villages of Schoolcraft and Vicksburg.
The district covers 144 square miles and is a merger of three fire departments located in the villages of Schoolcraft, Vicksburg and Fulton. Their services include fire suppression and ice and water rescue for a population of approximately 16,000. The service is run by paid-on-call personnel. The stations are not staffed.
At a recent hearing of Brady and Wakeshma Townships, Brady Township Supervisor Randy Smith explained the formula used to distribute the costs of the district to the member communities.
The formula consists of three components, recalculated annually. Components include 30% population using the decennial census, 30% on members’ property valuations and 40% based on historical usage of manpower and equipment. Using that formula, anticipated funding levels for 2015/16 are Brady, 22.72%; Prairie Ronde, 13.07%; Schoolcraft Township, 28.99%; Schoolcraft Village, 9%; Vicksburg Village, 16.88% and Wakeshma, 9.34%.
Budgets for the past 16 years have covered immediate needs with what appears to be a line item for large capital purchases, including $70,000 for trucks & tanks. But little has been available to keep up with the needs of the 45-member team of fire fighters or for ever-changing communication needs.
As a result, the authority board has been faced with the challenge of asking member communities to boost their funding to cover such needs adequately into the future.
Board President Randy Smith reported that the authority was given a $128,444 “Assistance to Firefighters Grant” in 2009 to upgrade the radio communication system. In addition, Smith reported that in the past five years the authority was fortunate to receive more than $440,000 in grants to upgrade equipment. At the same time, it can’t continue to wait for money to fall from the sky when equipment requires constant upgrading to stay current in a service industry where lives are at stake. It’s time to right the wrongs of the past and move forward in a responsible manner, he told the audience.
The Authority’s Board prepared a comprehensive 20-year plan to look at future funding. This plan was broken down into five department cost centers; consisting of vehicles, operations, facilities, manpower and equipment. What board members learned through this process was that additional funding of $187,295 would be necessary to adequately fund their needs into the future. That proposed increase is 38 percent of the current 14-15 budget of $488,295. Of that proposed increase; 68 percent would be allocated to capital outlay in categories of clothing, communications and equipment, 31 percent to manpower and the remaining 1 percent to facilities and operations. According to the presentation, wages were based on keeping the staffing at current levels. Detailed budget documents are available at a link on the Brady Township website as well as the SKCFA.org website.
The Villages of Schoolcraft and Vicksburg as well as Schoolcraft Township plan to continue to pay for the SKCFA from their general funds. The Townships of Brady, Wakeshma and Prairie Ronde are looking into their options. Officials there feel they can no longer use general funds to cover the payment.