Can crowd funding save the fire service?

One small fire department's financial woes show a much larger problem, here's one possible solution.

By Rick Markley, Fire Chief Editor-in-chief

Of all my soapboxes, the “squawking about government not paying for fire services” is among my favorites. What’s not to love about it; it’s comfortable and well-built.

When I came across the story of the Sugarloaf Township (Pa.) Fire Company’s funding woes, I quickly dusted off the soapbox and readied myself to hop up on that sturdy old friend.

Sugarloaf is a volunteer company that operates on an annual budget of less than $100,000. About 25 percent of that money comes from tax revenue, with the rest made up in community donations.

But Sugarloaf’s efforts to raise the additional money came up short — way short. With the community donating only $25,000, the department is left wondering how it will operate and save for a needed new fire truck.

It’s a familiar problem. Today, Humorist Will Wyatt looks at three municipalities trying to come to terms with how to buy a fire truck. And when the story ran on one of our Facebook pages, readers responded with a wide range of funding schemes in place at their jurisdictions.

I cracked my knuckles and wiggled my fingers to loosen them up to type up a nice tirade about how reliance on donations lets governments, ultimately non-donating residents, off the hook for their fair share of the fire-protection bill.

Before that, I began contemplating solutions other than taxes. Sugarloaf’s fire chief said he believes donations are down because residents wrongly believe the department is tax financed.

That’s a public relations and marketing issue. It has inexpensive fixes; a decent public relations campaign can be built by university students or interns for little-to-no cost.

Then I thought about human nature. Generally, people don’t like to be told they have to pay for something — as evidence by how much effort goes into reducing income tax obligations. Yet, people like to contribute money to causes — as evidence by the success of the many Internet-based crowd-funding sites.

What if a funding mechanism combined both? Consider this scenario.

A fire district with taxing authority relied first on donations and activated the punitive tax only when donations fell short.

Crowd funding, solid public relations and business partnerships could play prominently into such a plan.

Of course, this is all brainstorming. Please weigh in with what you think is the most viable, or outside the box, funding method.

And as for my favorite soapbox, I’ll tuck it away — for now.

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