The bright red Westminster Fire Department service vehicles sit in their bays on a September morning waiting to be called to action, to fulfill their intended purpose. Fortunately for the good people of the community, no such call for action is necessary just yet.
Still, the vehicles sit at the ready, unaware of the financial difficulties the department faces and yet a confusing symbol, nonetheless. You see, the vehicles in question are relatively brand new, the oldest one having only 5,000 miles on the clock. They give the impression of a department flush with money. The truth, however, lies in the strategic planning of Chief Donnie Norman, who has seemingly mastered the paper-overloaded world of state and federal grants.
Norman has worked his magic — more of a cold, hard process, truth be told — with the Texas A&M Forest Service and the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) to acquire three new vehicles for the department with only a 5 to 10 percent outlay for each, and that remainder was taken care of with frugal budgeting. It’s the only way a small department such as Westminster could hope to equip itself with new equipment.
That fact was driven home with the release of Collin County’s 2013-14 fiscal year budget. Westminster F.D. will see its budget slashed from $96,000 last year to $40,000 this coming fiscal year. That is more than 50 of the department’s budget gone. Think about it this way: how would losing 50 percent of your salary affect you?
One can see the dilemma facing the Westminster Fire Department. Diesel fuel costs are now a major issue and, in fact, the department can’t even afford to purchase bottled water. With more than 50 percent of its budget lost, Norman is left to search for ways to keep the department afloat.
According to Norman, the new system enacted by the county to determine local budgets is two-fold: part of the funding comes from the population in the fire district (3,000-4,000 in Westminster) and part is based on the size of the fire district (about 35 square miles.)
"That did not favor us," said Norman. "A few others were hit, but no one was 50 percent hit like [us]. It’s a lot of money, and we’re struggling to work through it."
The problem is that those county dollars amount to the department’s entire budget. Westminster is an unincorporated community, and as such, there are no tax dollars to fund the fire department.
"We have no other means by which to generate revenue," said Norman. "We don’t have a city backing us up that we can go to and say we need additional funding."
In a small community, donations and fundraisers can only go so far and cannot be relied on to make a big dent in the bills. Like any homeowner, the department has utility bills and even a USDA loan payment on its building to the tune of $4,000 per year. Factor that in with the roughly $6,500 the department needs per month to pay its auto and building insurance, fuel, gear cleaning and inspection and it’s easy to see why the department will be operating at a 50 percent deficiency.
State and federal grants exist to purchase vehicles and equipment, but to the best of Norman’s knowledge there currently exist no grants to cover operating costs. To make matters worse, the department has been told that its septic system is not adequate and must be fixed. Norman said estimates range from $4,000 to $10,000, though the true final cost is uncertain at this point. Regardless, that amounts to anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of the county money coming in. The department, therefore, will be selling a water tanker and a staff vehicle to pay for the new septic system. Norman said that he has even had volunteers in the department offer to sign over their stipend checks to keep the department afloat in the event that the sale does not cover the cost of the new septic system
Norman, who has been with the department since 2006 and chief since January following the retirement of long-time former chief Sam Geer, doesn’t have all the answers just yet.
"We’re kind of in shock over what’s going on with our funding right now," said Norman. "It’s very tight, and the public sees these new fire trucks and think it’s their local tax dollars and that we’re doing very well. The only reason we’re doing well is because there has been a need recognized by the federal government or state government."
Westminster Fire Department has 35 members, none paid a salary. The department, however, is big on training, and 14 firefighters are certified through Texas Commission on Fire Protection, which regulates the career departments. Smaller departments can be regulated by them, and WFD does so voluntarily to make sure it’s doing everything right.
"We had them come in and evaluate our department, and we are compliant with them," explained Norman. "So, we’re on top of that."
Norman stated that there is another regulatory service in Texas that regulates volunteer firefighters, and Westminster’s are certified by both. The only money comes in the form of a stipend. Everyone who is trained to the Firefighter 2 level and has a medical certification, gets a small stipend from FEMA.
"It’s basically meant to compensate for their expenses driving here," added Norman.
One benefit to working for the department is education. A fund has been set up through the State of Texas so that firefighters who are certified can get their bachelor’s degree for free through any state school. Thanks to money from FEMA and the Texas Forest the department can furnish that training. As Norman explained it, the level of training is so thorough that it is not unheard of for WFD firefighters to take jobs in Flower Mound, Sherman or Van Alstyne after getting serving with Westminster.
"We are not your traditional small volunteer fire department; we are a credible, well-trained, well-versed fire department," said Norman, who holds nearly every certification the Texas Commission on Fire Protection offers. "We have people that could leave here and go to work for [departments] in Plano, McKinney, Allen. Our folks are trained to that level."
Additionally, Westminster is only one of 12 departments in the county to provide Advanced Life Support. That Advanced Life Support, additionally, entailed a $35,000 equipment expense of which the department is still paying off.
Donations and fundraisers have helped the department in recent years. For those who want to donate or hold a fundraiser call 972-924-4141 or contact the department at 311 Houston St., Anna, 75409.
The final question for Norman on this sunny September day was the hardest to answer: what is the future of the Westminster Fire Department?
"I don’t know," answered an earnest Norman. "We’re going to hang in here; our membership is committed. The county, the City of Anna, the City of Melissa, they know our situation. We’re going to try to ride it out. Maybe through God’s grace we’ll get some donations. Who knows what’s going to happen? We’re here for the long haul. We’ll go till we can’t go any more and then we’ll address the needs."