Sunday, April 22, 2018
Public safety

Hillsborough audit says volunteer fire companies may cost more than they are worth

TAMPA — A new audit recommends Hillsborough County rethink its longtime use of volunteer fire companies in rural communities, saying those units operate with little oversight and may cost more than they are worth.

The six volunteer fire departments cost the county a total of about $1.5 million each year. That includes $49,950 paid to each company as well as equipment and the cost of sending in career firefighters when the companies don't have enough volunteers, according to Clifton Larson Allen LLP, the auditors hired by Hillsborough County.

"Volunteers are not free of cost to the community," the audit says, noting that some of the units are following a nationwide trend of paying volunteers on a per-call basis. The Bloomingdale Volunteer Fire Department, for instance, reported nearly $87,000 in salaries and compensation for 2011, according to federal tax filings.

"Compensation is increasingly becoming the norm for fire-rescue operations struggling to recruit and retain noncareer personnel," the audit says.

The cost to staff volunteer stations with all career personnel, however, would be higher — $5 million, the auditors estimate.

The recommendation to reconsider the volunteer units was part of a sweeping performance audit of the Hillsborough Fire Rescue's $111 million operation. But it could also be one of the most sensitive, and the auditors allude to some tension between nearly 900 career firefighters and 160 volunteers.

"Career personnel believe that the volunteer associations operate too autonomously and do not necessarily share information that is essential to properly manage (Fire Rescue) as a compact unit," the audit says. "The volunteer associations, on the other hand, consider that communication by (Fire Rescue) is not as frequent, timely and consistent as it should be."

Hillsborough Fire Rescue Chief Ron Rogers said he is meeting with County Administrator Mike Merrill this week to discuss the audit findings.

He said the associations, which are organized as nonprofits, have refused to hand over financial records. Two months ago, he sought a legal opinion on whether the associations should be subject to public records laws. The county attorney said they are.

Last month the county shut off public funding to Cork-Knights near Plant City and Dover-Turkey Creek after auditors discovered problems with their tax-exempt statuses.

According to county documents, Cork-Knights could not produce the tax records required of nonprofits. The Dover-Turkey Creek department had its tax-exempt status revoked by the Internal Revenue Service last year after failing to file those same forms.

The other four units — Bloomingdale, Lutz, North Brandon and Sundance — did fill out their tax forms but their financial operations appear to vary.

Bloomingdale reported $183,280 in revenue in 2011, nearly all it from contributions and grants. That unit also spent nearly $30,000 on professional fundraising fees. Lutz reported that the biggest chunk of its $150,832 in revenue — $85,508 — comes from membership dues.

None of the officers with the six volunteer stations returned phone calls for comment.

Hillsborough County Fire Rescue began with an all-volunteer force in the 1950s. The first full-time firefighters were hired in 1974, when Fire Rescue began operating as a county agency.

More than 70 percent of the nation's firefighters are volunteers, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. They are particularly vital in small towns and in rural areas, said spokeswoman Kimberly Quiros.

Volunteer departments around the country face difficulties finding younger volunteers, she said.

Hillsborough's six volunteer stations must be manned 24-7, just like a career department. If the volunteer companies can't get enough members to show up, the county pays its career personnel to fill the ranks. Under the county's contract with the firefighters union, those career firefighters must get overtime pay to work at volunteer departments.

Hillsborough's volunteer firefighters are required to receive 206 hours of training, a less stringent standard than career personnel, the audit says. Though volunteer units may be the first to arrive to the scene of a fire or accident, they are backed up by career firefighters, Rogers said.

Rogers said a possible option is to integrate the volunteers with the career units rather than maintaining six separate volunteer departments. That's how Pinellas Suncoast Fire Rescue District operates.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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