A budget item that keeps ballooning

Lawmakers take a strong interest in fire services

IN 1973, in the wake of two horrific fires in Boston and Chelsea, the Legislature approved an assessment on property and casualty insurance companies to pay for firefighter training.

The assessment to fund the Department of Fire Services started small, at $100,000, then grew slowly – to $750,000 in the 1980s, $5 million in the 1990s, and $9 million in the early 2000s. Then, as lawmakers expanded the scope of fire services and began slipping more and more local earmarks into the line item, it started growing faster – to $21 million in 2011 and $27 million in 2019.

This year lawmakers – and Gov. Charlie Baker – are taking spending on fire services to a whole new level. They are tapping the insurance industry for $31 million and they are consolidating $1.7 million of earmarks for a potpourri of local fire projects in a new and entirely separate line item paid for by taxpayers. At nearly $33 million, the overall spending level is up 22 percent from last year.

Tax revenues have been surging of late, and lawmakers tasked with reconciling differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget decided to make their jobs easier by throwing $317 million in additional revenue into the mix. The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation thinks the lawmakers were too aggressive with their revenue assumptions, raising the prospect of mid-year spending cuts if the money doesn’t materialize.

The line item for the Department of Fire Services, which trains municipal firefighters at no cost to cities and towns and also operates a hazardous materials response program, is most notable for how it is funded. Officials representing the property and casualty insurance industry say they have no problem dedicating resources to firefighter training, but each year they question why the costs keep rising so rapidly and why they should have to pay for local fire initiatives. They note the costs they incur are passed along to customers in the form of higher premiums.

In his budget, the governor called for a nearly $27 million assessment on property and casualty insurers, an amount that included about $3 million for State Police fire and arson investigations. That money had previously been paid out of a taxpayer-funded State Police account.

The House, in its budget, didn’t go along with the governor’s $3 million State Police shift, but it nevertheless proposed $25.7 million in assessments on insurers to fund the Department of Fire Services. It also did something the insurers loved, breaking out nearly $1.8 million in earmarks for local fire projects into a separate line item to be paid for with tax revenues.

The Senate budget lumped earmarks, the $3 million in State Police funding, and money for the Department of Fire Services in one $31.2 million assessment on insurers.

The two branches resolved their differences on Monday by assessing the insurers for a total of $31.1 million and creating a separate line item for $1.6 million in local earmarks.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The earmarks are mostly for fire gear and equipment, but many are vaguely worded. Worcester, for example, would receive $250,000 for fire safety equipment; Dover would get $104,000. Brockton would receive $25,000 to update and repair its fire stations, while Palmer would receive $40,000 for station work. Taunton would receive $40,000 for a replacement floor for a fire station and Westwood would get $25,000 for a memorial monument.

One more step remains in the budget process – the governor has to decide what to approve and what to veto. In the past, he has vetoed most of the local earmarks for fire equipment and such, but each time the Legislature has overridden his veto.