Cuba Free Press Editor Chris Case presented Fire Chief Mike Plank and Assistant Chief Jim Smith with the following list of questions about a proposed fire district for the Cuba area. Area voters will decide if they wish to form a local fire district when they go to the polls on April 3.
EDITOR: Where did the idea of creating a fire district for Cuba originate? For how long has this been discussed?
MIKE PLANK: The decision to pursue going to a tax district has been discussed on and off for the last few years at the annual meeting held in May every year. This is the time that membership costs are looked at and determined if they will remain the same or increase for the next year. This last meeting, it was determined that with the continued decrease in memberships, we felt that raising membership fees would not be in the best interest of the people who have continued to support the department, and the small increase that would be gained would not change the outlook of the financial goals of the department. It was then decided at that meeting to go forth with the tax ballot proposal. This tax district proposal would create funding so that everyone who owns property within the district would pay their portion.
EDITOR: What is required in order to create a Cuba Fire District? Explain what the voters will see on their election ballot.
MIKE PLANK: Voters will see two questions on the April 3rd ballot, and a simple majority is all that is required for them to pass.
EDITOR: Who will be voting on this measure in April?
MIKE PLANK: Anyone who resides within the boundaries that the fire department covers now is able to vote on the measure. This includes the city limits of Cuba, Indian Hills, and the rural area outside the city.
EDITOR: Why create a Cuba Fire Protection District, and why do it now? Why can’t things continue as they currently are, with the City of Cuba and rural memberships providing revenue to support the department?
MIKE PLANK: In order to answer this question, let me first give a brief history lesson as to how the departments operate. I think this will help people better understand where we are at and why we are asking for this tax proposal.
The city fire department was formed in 1934, and the rural department was formed in 1944. Both of these departments have operated separately on the books for funding, but have always shared equipment and personnel. Before I go any further, I want to be very clear that this is not to be taken as any negativity towards the city government or the rural subscribers. These are facts that we are being asked to be explained, and we will do correctly. For the last 30 years, it was always agreed upon as to how expenses were split between the departments for equipment expenses and general operating expenses. Both departments have experienced declines in operating capital the last several years, with declining membership revenue and no increase in city budgets.
The City of Cuba has always been very supportive of the fire department and has used other funds in the past to help with additional funding when they could. The current facility that the department is in was funded by the city and in-kind labor provided by the firefighters to finish the inside of the building, to save costs. This is just one example of joint projects that both departments have done in the past.
So, to answer the question of why create a fire district, the bottom line is that without the additional funding that this will provide to the department, services will suffer and the reality of sustaining the quality of protection that the citizens expect and deserve will likely decrease and in the worst case may be nonexistent. We are one department in the city budget, and just like the others, they all want a bigger piece of the pie, but we all know the pie is only so big. The same holds true with the rural memberships in that you can only ask people to pay; you cannot make them pay for your service through the membership. Most people look at it as, “I will never need the fire department, so I am not going to pay this.” What they do not understand is this is the funding that provides the basic service they expect. We still show up when they do have a problem; it’s just that someone else has paid for it. The department has not been able to put any funds aside for any kind of capital improvement projects for several years, and I don’t know of any business that survives very long without some kind of emergency fund for breakdowns or major loss of a piece of equipment.
JIM SMITH: If we continue on as we are now, there will be no sustainability to keep up with our growing community. You can think of it like this: We are getting by and paying our bills – but surviving on a paycheck to paycheck type basis. It’s just how it is, and we are spending our budget the best way you can. Less money coming in diminishes our future for basic operations. We want our community department to be sustainable to the future and to provide the best lifesaving and property conservation services we can.
EDITOR: With the assessment of a property tax to support the Cuba Fire Protection District, how much additional funding will it provide the fire department and how will that money be shared between the city and rural departments? What was your department’s budget this year, and what would your budget be next year if the fire district is created?
MIKE PLANK: Based on figures provided by the county, the tax would generate approximately $325,000 annually. The funding will not be split in any way, as the rural and city departments will become one. If the fire district passes, the City of Cuba funding would cease and rural memberships would cease after January 1, 2019. The new district and board would oversee the funds and earmark them accordingly for equipment and normal operating costs. The income for the current year, combined with the city budget and rural memberships, is approximately $125,000, and is approximate due to fluctuations with memberships coming in throughout the year.
EDITOR: Are there immediate or near-future plans to hire full-time or part-time fire department personnel?
MIKE PLANK: There is an immediate need to address personnel concerns, as active volunteer staffing has declined over the past several years. The department is struggling just like every volunteer department in the US with staffing. Ultimately, any decision to hire staff, either part-time or full-time, would be a board decision, but we do see this being an issue that is not going to go away and will have to be discussed. I personally do not see it happening in the first year, as there are other things that need immediate funding, but I do think it will be a discussion topic in the foreseeable future. As to what extent, that will have to be determined at that time. People can contact us if they would be interested in volunteering with the department.
EDITOR: What is the current status of fire vehicles and equipment? Are there vehicles that will need to be retired soon and replacement vehicles purchased?
MIKE PLANK: The department currently has a fleet of 11 apparatus that is used for anything from structure fires to support vehicles. Apparatus must meet standards, and pumping apparatus must also pass annual pump certifications, and the department’s ladder truck must also have an annual ladder certification. NFPA recommends apparatus be placed in a reserve status after 20 years. The department currently has two pumpers that fall in that 20-year lifespan, with one of those being 38 years old. The city purchased a used 1993 ladder truck a few years ago to replace the previous ladder truck, and it also has surpassed the 20-year recommended age.
Apparatus costs are undeniably the biggest expense that this department or any department will have in order to do business. An example of just how much prices have changed over the last several years, the current truck that is 38 years old cost $41, 880.41 in 1980. That truck to replace today would cost well over $250,000.
We are often asked why does the fire department need a ladder truck when there aren’t any tall buildings in Cuba? The answer to that question falls into the category of insurance requirements. Insurance Services Organization (ISO) is a company that all insurance companies use to determine insurance rates throughout the US. There are several factors that play into it, but the part that we can control is the fire department aspect of it. Building heights and square footages of building are what determines if a ladder is required in a particular city. The City of Cuba meets the requirements due to one three-story building, which is considered by its property class and the numerous large square footage building inside the Industrial Park.
ISO also determines that to meet the needed fire flow for these occupancies we must have the capabilities to pump over 3500 gallons per minute of water. Meeting this requirement alone requires the department to have three pumping apparatus.
In the rural setting, we must haul water to the fire location, and that requires the use of tankers. The department currently has two, which one was acquired on a FEMA grant and the other was able to be remounted by the generous donation of a used road tractor from Wallis Companies. We currently have three brush units in the fleet for woodland fires and one medium rescue used to carry additional equipment, such as extrication equipment and extra breathing apparatus. With the advancement of current apparatus there are options now that were not available 10, 15, 20 years ago to make it possible for us to be more effective and to make it safer for our firefighters.
Equipment costs are also continually on the rise, and it is hard to keep up with replacement of this equipment as well. The average cost of a set of turnout gear today from head to toe is close to $5,000, with the average set lasting five to seven years, depending on use. The City of Cuba helped with the funding of new SCBA breathing apparatus three years ago, which costs over $135,000 for 20 units. The expected lifespan is 15 years on these units.
The department also must keep up with new car technology and maintain rescue equipment that will perform on these vehicles. Did you know with the use of new metals in some makes and models it takes specialized cutters to get through it?
Some other things people need to know is that fire departments are not just about putting out fires anymore. We are who people call when they are having a bad day and they expect us to make their day better. We are responding to calls like water rescues that we have not done in the past, and there is training and equipment needs for us to safely perform this type of rescue. We were informed that Crawford County lost a resource that was used for water rescues in a trailer that was staged in Sullivan. This trailer was part of a statewide task force, and it has been reassigned to another location. This adds to the burden of the county departments, which now have to provide the equipment themselves to answer these calls.
JIM SMITH: All fire apparatus must meet a minimum National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) requirements. Aging apparatus must be safe and reliable. Yes, we need to make plans to replace apparatus now on a one by one basis that would be cost effective and responsible.
EDITOR: If a new fire district is created for the Cuba community, what will its boundaries be? In square mileage, how much area does it cover?
MIKE PLANK: The current boundaries will not change, as they are already defined by statute. Our response area covers approximately 155 square miles in Northwest Crawford County, including the City of Cuba and Indian Hills. The coverage is basically from the Crawford/Phelps County line to the Gasconade County line to the north. East to the Oakhill/Rutz Road area along Hwy P to Libhart Road. The east line continues to North Hobby Hut and South Hobby Hut to Kitchen Road, Lick Creek Road and to the Meramec River. Birds Nest Road and Idlewild Road being the southern line to the river and back to the Phelps County line. There are a few properties in the Rosati area that are in Crawford County that are in St. James Fire District.
EDITOR: Explain the benefits of having a local fire district, as opposed to what we have now in Cuba.
MIKE PLANK: The greatest advantage of the district will be the fact that we will know what the income will be and can start at creating 3, 5, and 10 year plans that would take the department into the future. The department has always been good stewards of funding, using it the best possible way. This will not change, as the new board will no doubt be dutiful in spending taxpayers’ money wisely. As stated earlier, this will ensure that when services are needed there will be equipment and people to respond.
JIM SMITH: A district is a much more fair approach to the taxpayers. No one would be exempt in paying their fair share. The way we have it now is that the City of Cuba provides us with a budget of approximately $70,000 and in the rural area we send out a rural fire membership renewal every year to property owners. This can be expensive for the rural department, depending on how many reminders and follow ups are sent out, and is time consuming for the completely volunteer administrative staff that spend hours just performing those tasks. The problem is that many see this as just an optional bill anymore, and it’s not against the law to not pay it. A lot of people just take the gamble to pay up later when they need it. Memberships have been decreasing over the years. The city department and the rural department will become one if the funded fire district passes, and then rural memberships will cease to exist.
EDITOR: Will creating a fire district have any impact on homeowner’s insurance? In what ways?
MIKE PLANK: The creation of the fire district will have no impact on homeowner’s insurance. As stated before, that is set by ISO and several factors play into that. We, as a department, will always continue to strive to meet the requirements from ISO for lower ratings. We are one-third of the total equation, with 911 being a third and the City of Cuba water supply being a third. One of the ways to help us on our end would be a fixed training facility. Firefighters are required to do a certain number of live burn training hours a year, which we cannot meet as there is no location that we can take all the firefighters to. This would be a future project and would meet joint training requirements with neighboring departments.
JIM SMITH: The creation of the fire district itself has no impact on homeowner’s insurance. The ability to train and purchase the appropriate apparatus and gear to sustain the minimum requirements for creating a much better ISO rating will be possible without the monetary restrictions we have now. ISO will perform an audit of our training records, our volunteers, our water supply system, and a predetermined test of our fire operations. That is a service goal we are really striving for.
EDITOR: What happens if the ballot measures fail in April?
MIKE PLANK: If the tax district fails it will no doubt have an impact on the department. The rural memberships would have to be increased and the City of Cuba will have to dig deep as well to find additional funds. Without the tax increase, service that is currently being provided will be impacted and there is always the possibility that no volunteer crew will show up.
JIM SMITH: We will continue to operate and respond to emergency calls, but the members and volunteers will have to take a step back to review our future. All in all, more funding will have to be passed on from the City of Cuba and the rural members.
EDITOR: Any final thoughts?
MIKE PLANK: On a final thought, being with the department for 33 years and being the Fire Chief for the last 18 years, I have seen a lot of changes to this department. I can assure you that you have some of the most dedicated neighbors, family and friends answering calls for help when people are having a bad day. Don’t forget the fact that most of these people have lived in this community their entire lives and have given countless hours and days to the community. One thing I want everyone to think about is, anyone who has ever volunteered on a fire department knows the risks that are involved when they sign up and respond out the door on a truck. There is always that chance they may not come back home to their family, friends, and neighbors. Let’s give them the best opportunity to do a dangerous job with updated equipment and training, so they can return home to their families.
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