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State battles to fund firefighting

July 7, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Despite devastating wildfires each year, California routinely under-funds fire departments and typically dips into emergency cash reserves to pay those bills.From 1998 to 1999, California saw a slower fire year. During that year, the state set aside $20 million for fighting fires, but ended up doubling that expense. In the more active 2003-2004 year, the state budgeted $70 million for fighting fires; however, actual costs more than tripled.

The problem is repeating itself and has become more pronounced over the fiscal year, which ended in July. The state spent a record $400 million on firefighting; yet it budgeted only $82 million. While some of that money is reimbursed by federal or local governments, most is not.

"If we could predict with accuracy how many fires we're going to have in a given year, we'd budget for it," said H.D. Palmer, California Finance Department.

The problem California may face, however, is that adding millions more for firefighting means the money will be taken from other parts of the budget. In some cases, the money may be taken from reserves.

"Sometimes we leave the reserve to take care of that and just hope that it's covered," said Assemblyman John Laird (D-Santa Cruz).

The danger this year in relying on cash reserves to pay for firefighting is that the reserve account only has $800 million. Therefore, actions such as the deployment of the California National Guard to the fires for the first time in 30 years, will only add to state costs.

 

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