By Rep. Mike Sanders
The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry got my attention this summer when they reduced the funding they will provide that benefits rural volunteer fire departments. I knew that they received a cut this year, but I was surprised that they decided to redo their budget in a way that reduces the public safety service provided in rural communities.
Operational funds are provided through the agency for each of the more than 850 certified rural fire department with each receiving equal portions. Prior to 2010, this money was never raided to balance the agency budget. This year, each volunteer rural fire department will lose about $200, on top of raiding that has already occurred in past years. Rural Fire Coordinators provide technical advice and assistance to rural fire departments in communities whose population does not exceed 10,000 residents through the Oklahoma Forestry Service Rural Fire Defense Program. The coordinators are funded through a contract between the agency and the Oklahoma Association of Regional Councils. This program has seen no increase in contract funding since 1999 and has received funding cuts since 2010. This year, they are receiving a 5 percent cut. The 80/20 grants has also been cut down to an estimated $200,000. Two additional programs that helped get surplus equipment to rural firefighters have been eliminated.
I decided not to be rash and to talk to Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese before I drew any conclusions about the agency’s actions. I understood that the agency budget was going to look different than in past years. The budget shortfall was created from a combination of the slowdown of the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma and longterm budgetary problems, such as the use of one-time revenues in past years and off-the-top obligated monies for higher education, roads and bridges and state retirement systems. With that shortfall, it made sense that they would review their budget and look for ways to save money.
When I met with Secretary Reese, one of the questions I had for him was whether or not any full-time employees were cut under the agency. The reason I asked this was that a common practice among agency administrators is to target a popular program in order to make legislators “feel the pain” of any cut to appropriations. If the agency did a thorough review of its overall spending and cut from multiple areas, I can accept that the cut to rural firefighters was a purely budgetary position. If, however, he cut only that program, while not releasing even a single full-time employee, I will be suspicious that his actions are due to politics.
Secretary Reese’s response to me in person was that he didn’t have that information in front of him but that he would get it to me shortly. Generally, I do not nitpick every agency decision, but I think any reduction to core services such as public safety or road and bridge funding warrant my interest. If the Ag Department is protecting secondary services on the backs of core services, I will be very disappointed.
Ag Department Cuts Rural Firefighter Money
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