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Erik Burgess, Published January 11 2014

Fighting fire with funds: Crews breathe easier with increased money coming from state

CASSELTON, N.D. - The hulking red fire engine toward the back of the fire hall here is old, but buffed to a shine. It tries not to show its age.

Until you hop inside and sit behind the wheel. There are no seat belts – a sure sign of the early 1960s, when it was made.

“It was good in its day,” said Tim McLean, the Casselton fire chief.

Firefighters still use the old truck on occasion, if they have to, but McLean hopes to buy a new engine for his all-

volunteer crew with a recent influx of state money.

Firefighting crews across the state, large and small, will likely breathe a little easier this year thanks to more money coming from the state fire insurance premium tax.

The Legislature allocated $7,268,000 to fire departments statewide last year from this tax on insurance. That’s up from about $3.1 million given out in 2012, Fargo Fire Chief Steve Dirksen said.

If you own a home or business, you’ve likely seen the 1.75 percent tax tacked onto your insurance policy. Historically, that money has gone to the Legislature, which then disperses it to fire departments statewide in annual checks. The money is to be used for local fire training and equipment.

But for about the past two decades, the checks were smaller and smaller, Dirksen said. Starting in about 1988, the Legislature decided not to return 100 percent of the tax money to fire departments, instead using it to pad the state’s own general fund.

It led to a successful lobbying effort from the North Dakota Fire Chief’s Association last year to get that money back.

“(The state is) doing well financially, and there were several fire departments out there that could use more funding,” Dirksen said. “A lot of them were surviving on pancake feeds and chili feeds.”

In 2012, before the lobbying effort, Fargo received 44 percent of the taxes paid in by insurance purchasers, amounting to a $295,271 check from the state, Dirksen said.

After multiple trips to Bismarck, Fargo received $627,613 last year, close to 100 percent of what the community put in via the insurance tax. The city should get about the same amount at the end of this year, Dirksen said.

West Fargo’s fire crew also saw a significant bump in funds. In 2012, they received $87,105. That increased to $228,590 last year, said West Fargo Fire Chief Roy Schatschneider.

Casselton received $27,741 in 2012. At the end of last year, the fire department received $61,953, and should get about the same at the end of this year.

“It’s huge,” McLean said. “Buying equipment and stuff, it’s so expensive.”

Other than buying equipment, McLean will use the money for training in the wake of a train derailment and explosion that occurred just a mile out of town on Dec. 30.

“We’ve seen it ourselves. We know what (an oil) car will do, which really helps having the firsthand visual. … We’re going to work now on a plan if it happens downtown,” McLean said.

Like Casselton, West Fargo will also use the money to buy a new engine, Schatschneider said. They’re looking to replace a 30-year-old truck, and may also add a part-time employee.

The youngest fire engine in the Casselton garage is from 2002. A new one today could cost anywhere between $250,000 and $400,000, McLean said.

“Our city is growing so much, the industrial park is growing, and we just feel we need a little more fire protection,” he said.

Members of the Casselton fire crew – who go by the nickname “Fire Dogs” – don’t just protect the city limits. They contract with 12 surrounding townships and seven other nearby cities and towns, in total covering 372 square miles of Cass County, McLean said.

The old ’60s engine, with its bulbous red siren and round, bug-eye headlights, is rarely used in the field. Its water tank is too small, and you’re more likely to find kids playing on it during a parade or other event. McLean calls it their “Halloween truck.”

If McLean gets a new engine, he’d have to shuffle some vehicles around in his modest fire hall. It’s full of gear and trucks, including a restored 1920s vehicle that looks more like the title star of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” than a fire engine.

McLean said he is thankful to have the opportunity to get a newer truck. What’s still on his wish list? A bigger fire hall, of course, he said with a smile.

“We really appreciate what the Legislature has done to give us this money,” McLean said. “You need every dollar you can get in this business.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518