Friday, March 25, 2011

Public safety bills raid Fire Safety Account and statewide radio fund
by Anne Finn, League of Minnesota Cities

Minnesota House and Senate Public Safety Committees have both recommended provisions that would transfer funds from the Fire Safety Account and the Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response (ARMER) to the state’s general fund.

The Fire Safety Account is a dedicated account derived from a surcharge on homeowners insurance premiums for the purpose of funding the State Fire Marshal’s Office, firefighter training and regional fire service initiatives. The fund was raided by the legislature and governor in 2010, when $15 million was diverted to the state’s general fund. The House omnibus public safety bill, HF 853 (Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder), would transfer $8.5 million from the Fire Safety Account to the general fund for the next biennium. The Senate’s bill, SF 958 (Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove), would make a similar transfer of $6.5 million.

ARMER is the radio system used primarily by emergency responders to communicate during emergencies like natural disasters. The build-out of the system is being funded in part by a dedicated surcharge on telephone bills. The House omnibus public safety bill takes $5.2 million from ARMER for the biennium and transfers it to the state’s general fund. The Senate omnibus bill in its current form funds ARMER at $6.8 million for the biennium, the level recommended by Governor Mark Dayton.

The Fire Safety Account and the ARMER system are critical statewide programs. Further, using funds that are collected for a specific purpose to balance the state’s general fund violates the public’s trust. Both the House and Senate omnibus public safety budget bills will have floor debates next week.