‘It’s not pancakes and firemen’s ball anymore’

Jason Ferguson

The days of funding fire departments through pancake feeds, firemen’s balls and car washes are over.
That is the message being delivered by members of the Custer Volunteer Fire Department as they seek support in creating a new taxing district to ensure fire protection for those within the City of Custer and many acres of land surrounding the city, and it was the message delivered once again by those members to City of Custer Mayor Bob Brown and three Custer City Council members who gathered for a special council meeting last Tuesday at Custer City Hall.
“It’s $10,000 to put gear on one firefighter,” said Custer Volunteer Fire Department chief Matt Spring.
Spring said the department recently got new helmets, which were $450 each. A set of Jaws of Life, frequently used to pull victims out of vehicle wreckage, is $30,000. A new truck the department needs will cost as much as $900,000.
Rising expenses, combined with a dwindling amount of volunteers, has created the need for the creation of the proposed fire district, Spring said. The Custer Volunteer Fire Department currently has 30 members (down from 50 in the not-too-distant past), and of those 30, around eight are active, Spring said.
Spring said the department recently hired someone to work on and maintain the department’s equipment three days a week, and also pays its treasurer some money. Add it all together, and what little money the department has is about to dry up.
“We’ll deplete it. We’ll be gone,” Spring said.
Spring, along with wife and fellow department member Selena Spring, laid out to the council how the district would work, where the money would come from and for what the money would be used.
Presently, the departments not in fire districts receive money through a fire fund tax paid for by residents not in fire districts and given to the county’s fire advisory board from the county for distribution to departments not in a fire district. That mil levy currently sits at .204.
Currently that levy raises around $300,000 annually, and is split between the Custer, Argyle, Pringle, Folsom, Dewey, Highlands and Buffalo Gap departments, although Dewey is in the process of joining  Edgemont Fire Protection District.
Of that $300,000, Custer’s department currently receives around $80,000, but if the Custer Fire District is approved it will take the fire protection district property out of the equation, as the Custer Fire District will collect tax money from that property through a different mil levy. That means about $120,000 less for the other departments as that amount was used to help other departments even though those monies were collected in Custer’s current response area.
Spring has emphasized it will not change the Custer department’s response areas, saying the area seem to have worked just fine for decades the departments outside the Custer Fire District.
Spring said the fire district is allowed to ask for one mil for operations and another .6 for capital improvements, per state law. That includes fire trucks, a new station, etc. The mils cannot be raised after they are set.
“If you had a fire district it gives us the proper funding to do this,” he said. “We’ve talked about what we are up against.”
If the district were to request the full mil, that would mean $1 for every $1,000 of valuations. So, for a $300,000 valuation, that person would pay $300 per year to the fire district. Since there is already a mil of .204 in the proposed district boundaries, that mil would be absorbed into the new levy, Spring said.
Even if the max for both levies were requested, that doesn’t mean that much would be requested. If the district were formed once a board of directors was elected it would set a budget, and the mil required to achieve that money would be applied. The maximum does not have to be collected.
Spring explained to the council how the district would be a paid-volunteer hybrid, with some paid firefighters to ensure there is someone to answer calls when they come in, with volunteers backing up those firefighters. Those types of fire departments are scattered around the state, such as in Pierre and Brookings, and thousands more around the country.
Under this format, response time would go from 12 to 14 minutes to two minutes out the door, which would lead to better outcomes and potentially even lower insurance rates for district residents.
“If you have an average structure fire and it takes you 14 minutes out the door and it’s three minutes to get there, that fire has a 20-minute head start,” said alderman Todd Pechota, who also has years of experience in the fire service.
Pechota added under the current model, Custer will be lucky to have a fire department within 10 years.
“It’s nobody’s fault,” he said. “The volunteer fire department model was good 100 years ago. It did us good until bout 1990, ’95. Then things started changing.”
Selena Spring also pointed out the calls the department responds to has skyrocketed, as the department now gets over 200 calls a year.
Matt Spring called the issue a complicated, multi- faceted issue, saying the department is basically asking for help to hire a few firefighters, replace equipment when required, and update to new station after 145 years of basically free service and 100 percent free labor from volunteers
Matt Spring also touched on the presentation that was given to other departments—Pringle, Argyle and Custer Highlands—regarding joining the district, but Pringle and Highlands did not want to join and Argyle cannot if Pringle does not because the land in the district must be contiguous.
“It wasn’t well received at all,” he said. “We offered to go back, and they said don’t waste your time.”
Those departments could still form a district at a later date.
Spring said he was worried the Custer department would look like the “bad guys,” since it is the bigger department and would be taking a great deal of the money currently collected due to most of the structures in the county being in what would be the new fire district and therefore being protected by the Custer department. There are 3,688 structures within the 350 square-mile proposed area, whereas, for instance, the Highlands coverage area has 287 structures, Argyle 460 and Pringle 343.
“We are sharing the wealth right now,” Selena Spring said of the current fund division.
Pechota said the Custer area was subsidizing the other small districts, essentially.
Matt Spring said every effort will be made to inform the public of the plan before a November election, which will include open houses, public forums and meetings with small groups.
“If it fails, it fails,” he said. “At least we tried. The voters should decide the fate of their department.”
At a previous meeting of the Custer County Commission state’s attorney Tracy Kelley advised the commission against including Custer State Park and U.S. Forest Service land on the fire district map since they are entities that cannot be taxed, but Spring said at the May 28 council meeting he would like to see them included in the map boundaries.
“When do we stop excluding people?” he asked. “If we have entities inside it we want to contract with we can do that. It gives you more flexibility. To carve stuff out and try to get stuff back in is too difficult.”
There will need to be a resolution passed by both the county and city to move forward with the vote on the proposed district, with those resolutions being passed closer to election time, per state law.
Spring and Pechota indicated it’s not an understatement to say the future of the department depends upon the creation of the district. There is likely coming a time there aren’t enough firefighters to go to a call.
“As the fire chief, I have the right not to respond if it’s unsafe,” Spring said.
Spring said later the department would always try to respond but it may be tied on how much effort we can safely implement due to limited resources.
“It puts us in a tough position morally,” Selena Spring said.

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