At last Tuesday’s Semmes City Council meeting, the treasurer of the Semmes Volunteer Fire Department presented a proposed budget to the Semmes City Council for a little over $415,000. Boy, that’s a lot of money!
It does take a lot of money to run a fire department and recent telephone conversations with fire department officials in the state of Alabama disclosed “that figure is probably a fair request for a fire department of that size.” It was then that I realized there may be a misunderstanding in our community concerning the Semmes Volunteer Fire Department.
The misconception, in my opinion, is that the citizens of Semmes see the big red firetruck with people onboard and “Semmes Volunteer Fire Department” emblazoned on the side in gold lettering and think, “wow, there goes the volunteer fire department.” People, it just ain’t so. It’s an illusion. It’s smoke and mirrors. There can be no volunteer fire department without volunteers. It cannot get much simpler than that.
With few exceptions, very few I might add, the personnel you see on the fire trucks in the City Of Semmes are not volunteers. They are paid employees of the City Of Semmes. Alabama Code was quoted in a previous article concerning certification of fire departments of political subdivisions as volunteer fire departments: Alabama Code § 9-3-17 (2) A “volunteer fire department” shall have no less than 80 percent unsalaried membership.
I am not a math wizard but for the sake of simplicity, let’s say the City Of Semmes has 20 salaried fire department personnel available for emergency response. By state law, if my math is correct, the SVFD needs 80 volunteers to comply with state law.
What does the City Of Semmes get in return for a four-hundred-and-fifteen-thousand dollar investment in the SVFD? Please don’t say we get twenty firemen. We already have that.
What property does the SVFD make available to the City Of Semmes? Fire Station #1 on Wulff Road is leased property. Fire Station #2 on Lott Road is leased from the City Of Citronelle.
What equipment will SVFD make available for our investment of $415,000? Mobile County Probate Court records indicate the SVFD has one 17 year old firetruck. Surely there is additional equipment controlled by the SVFD but might the citizens of Semmes be best served if the $415,000 was invested in equipment for our salaried firefighters. It just makes sense that our firefighters have immediate access to equipment they own rather than having to go to an independent third party like a volunteer fire department.
It appears to me the treasurer of the Semmes Volunteer Fire Department that presented the budget request of $415,000 is unaware of the legal status of the SVFD. I hope that is the case, otherwise it might be construed as purposeful misrepresentation. Let’s clear this up right away – present your volunteer roster with your request for $415,000.
Why does the SVFD need $415,000? According to IRS Form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service for the year 2014, Line 22, net assets or fund balances for SVFD is $666,484. Admittedly, the figures have changed since 2014 but a request of $415,000 to maintain $666,484 worth of assets, minus operating expenses, is mighty close to a total replacement of 68% of total assets.
Public financial data available online from findthecompany.com, using financial data from 2015, reveals $358,592 income and asset valuation of $433,589. It appears that the SVFD lost over $200,000 of asset valuation between 2014 and 2015. Of further concern is evaluation of 2013 returns which reveals that of total income, 36% is eaten up by unclassified expenses.
Guidestar reflects poorly on the Semmes Volunteer Fire Department. It shows a Mr. Tim Hale as the Principal Officer and EIN 63-0733403 and nothing else. Governance is shown as “Response Not Provided.” Only five items are requested and they are blank:
- Board Orientation & Education
- CEO Oversight
- Ethics & Transparency
- Board Composition
- Board Performance
Most non-profit organizations are eager to publish this information and often brag about it. I do not think it unfair for the SVFD to furnish this information to the mayor/council in view of the fact that the SVFD is asking for $415,000. What’s going on here?