Some fire halls in Pictou County say department funding is 'dangerously imbalanced'
Municipal council recently made a 5% cut to 12 rural fire departments
The sound of sirens filled the air on a recent evening as several fire trucks pulled up outside the municipal government building in Pictou, N.S.
Banners were waved and horns were honked Tuesday as a form of protest against a recent decision by Pictou County municipal council to cut funding from 12 rural fire departments and redistribute that money to five others, as well as a move to raise the tax levy of those same five.
It's a change that some firefighters say will create a "dangerous imbalance" among the county's fire departments, according to a recent statement from concerned fire chiefs, including those in Pictou Landing and Little Harbour.
"Some fire departments had some banners made up that said, 'Can You Hear Us Now?' — and that's all we want," said Robert Langille, a lieutenant with the Caribou district fire department who is also opposed to council's decision.
"Work with us to find a solution that makes sure all rural fire departments in Pictou County move forward."
The distribution of funds among the 17 rural departments in the Municipality of Pictou County has been a hot issue for many local volunteer firefighters for the past two years.
Other funding strategies submitted by the county's fire halls were rejected until this past June when municipal council passed a motion to adopt a proposal from the Abercrombie fire department. That proposal involved cutting five per cent of annual funding from the majority of the municipality's rural fire halls and redirecting that money to five others considered to be underfunded.
Rural fire departments in Pictou County are staffed by volunteer members and funded primarily by an annual area rate levy, which is based on a percentage of assessed property value. Some also rely on municipal grants and fundraising efforts.
"We're concerned that some of our [levy] ratepayers in the community might be a little upset that the money that they're putting in for where they live is not actually being spent in that area. That's not how it's supposed to work," said Langille, who was chosen by his peers to speak on behalf of fellow firefighters who also disagree with council's decision.
Under Abercrombie's proposal, the levy would be raised for the underfunded fire departments and capped at 20 cents per $100 of assessment for all departments for at least three years.
Langille said capping the levy creates imbalance in the way departments with smaller geographical areas or districts with smaller populations are funded.
"With the money that was being clawed back by the municipality to be redistributed, you would think you'd be able to put the tax levy up half a cent and cover that off, but they've made it so you can't do that," he said.
Robert Parker, warden of the Municipality of Pictou County, defended the funding changes, saying it's council's job to make tough decisions.
"I definitely feel like what we're doing is fair to all the fire departments, and we're trying to make sure that all the people in the county are adequately protected for fire service and that our firefighters are adequately protected themselves," he said.
Langille said one of the proposals that was put forward but rejected by council involved raising taxes by half a cent or a quarter of a cent annually and putting that money into an emergency fund that the county's rural fire departments could draw from.
He said those who disagree with the changes are not giving up and are willing to work with council on a resolution.
"They know that the issue is not a done issue in our eyes," said Langille. "They put a solution out there, we don't feel like it's the final solution, and we'd like to amend that to make it work for everybody."