Politifact boldly concludes that Jim Hightower told a whopper:
Upshot: Hightower’s statement, suggesting Republican legislators slashed the budgets of fire departments on the front lines of the wildfires, misrepresents the cuts in state grant funding for equipment and training as if they were a direct cut to volunteer fire departments. The state doesn’t fund the operating costs of local departments.Tell that to the volunteer fire departments:
It’s also incorrect to conclude that the cut to the grants’ fund hampered any department’s effort to combat recent wildfires; the reduction just took effect.
"These grass fires have taken off and we're having a hard time stopping them," said Somerset Fire Department Chief Eddie Dugosh.And in Abilene:
Dugosh spends many days repairing one of his trucks. "Within the last week, I've lost five tires at $2,500," said Dugosh.
The department paid that cost out of pocket because the money the department gets from the state isn't enough.
"That (money) just covers our monthly expenses, that does not cover damages," Dugosh said.
State funding for volunteer departments was slashed this year, dropping from about $30 million to $7 million.
But costs are increasing thanks to the worst fire season in state history.
More flames means more repair bills. Dugosh said it becomes a safety issue.
"These trucks break down in the middle of that fire, you're in trouble."
So departments like Somerset look elsewhere for funds, conducting boot drives once a month to raise money.
"It's just, we're doing well with what we have," said Dugosh.
Since 2001, the Texas Forest Service has been issuing money from the state to help those departments update old equipment.Or, to put it yet another way:
After budget cuts their grant money has shrunk from $23 to $7 million.
"The advantage of replacing is their dependability. We have trucks in service that date back to the 60's", said Gary Young, with the Taylor County Rural Fire Committee.
Departments said it's their expensive equipment that helps save land and lives. They count on grant money to keep it up to date.
"We go into meet the initial call with enough equipment and enough man power to meet the initial surge to prevent the fires from getting bigger. Like we saw in Bastrop, it doesn't stop at city limits, it just keeps going," said Young.
And with no relief from fire danger in sight the loss of funding worries many.
"I've been doing this for over 20 years," said Young. "I just don't see where it's going to come from with that being pulled away."
“If we didn’t have the funding cuts, we could make sure the fire departments have the resources they need and rely on Texas resources to fight Texas fires,” Barron said. “When you have to stretch [$7 million] across 1,400 volunteer fire departments, it doesn’t go very far.”And actually, current costs are a problem, because of the way fire fighting is funded in Texas:
Barron said the cost of the fires, the worst of which has burned more than 1,550 homes in the Austin area, is “well over $120 million,” which the state will have to pay back to the U.S. Forest Service during the next legislative session.
“I don’t know what else it’s going to take to show the lawmakers and the public that the fire service is greatly underfunded,” Barron said.
As of Thursday, the tab for fighting the state's 2011 wildland fires had already reached a staggering $202.84 million — $63.75 million alone for plane and helicopter rentals.So the Forest Service is spending money it just received for fires it has already fought. Which means the cuts are affecting fire fighting now.
Generally, the Forest Service doesn't have that sort of cash. So it collects the bills and then asks the Legislature for enough money to cover the tab when it meets every two years. This past session, lawmakers appropriated $121 million to cover firefighting costs racked up in earlier years — about five times what the agency itself spends on fire suppression each year.
Politifact called the usual suspects. All I had to do was use Google. Is Hightower wrong? Seems to depend on who you ask, and how you interpret their answers.
I don't think I'd call Jim Hightower a liar quite so quickly if I were Politifact.