Bill would improve fire district funding
A policy change advanced by a legislative committee Tuesday would mean more money for local fire districts across the state if it becomes law.
Senate Bill 2211, which received a “do pass” recommendation from the Senate Industry and Business Committee, would automatically direct all property insurance premium taxes collected by the state – rather than just a portion – to fire districts.
“Having a reliable source of funding ensures that firefighters can have the proper equipment and the training to do their jobs, enabling them to possibly even get a higher rating as a fire district and potentially lowering the fire insurance premiums to homeowners and businesses in that district,” sponsor Sen. Mark Weber, R-Casselton, said.
Currently, the Legislature must appropriate based on forecasted collections from the 1.75% premium tax for the coming biennium, and that has resulted in a cap on the amount going to the fire districts when forecasts are low. Insurance Commissioner Jon Godfread listed the amount that has bypassed fire districts and flowed instead into the state general fund at roughly $40 million over the past 40 years.
Meanwhile, he said, “Our consumers are being double and triple hit – once on their homeowners’ premiums, again on their property taxes and then again by participating in the various benefits put on by fire departments to cover their costs.”
Between 1997 and 2021, the amount going to fire districts has ranged from 45% to 91% of the tax, said Carrington Fire Chief Ken Wangen, president of the North Dakota Fire Chiefs Association. Although the Legislature makes up for the shortage to fire districts in the next biennium, it creates a two-year delay, he said.
“It places millions in the general fund that is desperately needed by fire departments in a timely manner,” he told the Senate committee.
Williston Fire Chief Matt Clark, also representing the Williston Volunteer Fire Department, said the tax has been particularly critical to the volunteer department at a time when calls for service and new personnel have been growing significantly.
“This funding has been used to offset the cost of training, staffing and to ensure that our staffing levels meet National Fire Protection minimum standards. The tax distribution has compensated operational expenses for command vehicles and equipment. Additionally, this funding helped establish a regional training facility for the northwest region of North Dakota,” he said.
The Insurance Department has traditionally withheld about 5.5% of the premium tax to distribute to the North Dakota Firefighter’s Association, which provides training and certification for firefighters. Under the bill, the firefighter’s association would receive funding from fines and fees in the Regulatory Trust Fund instead.
The bill also moves the State Fire Marshal’s office from within the Attorney General’s office to the Insurance Commissioner. Proponents noted the fire marshal’s job is 90% regulatory and only about 10% criminal investigation.
Godfread said his office will be requesting an additional four full-time-equivalent staff positions for the fire marshal.
“The fire marshal has not received an additional FTE for over 40 years, despite significant growth in the state during that timeframe. Because of this, there are many areas in our state that are underserved by the core functions of the Fire Marshal’s office,” he said.