Growing frustration by Tweed Shire Council over funding of the Rural Fire Service (RFS) has prompted a move to cut operational ties with the volunteer firefighter organisation.
Spiralling staff numbers and expenses in the service has alarmed councils facing increased demands for extra funding.
Tweed Council as a result has joined a statewide push for the RFS to take over all administration, budget, assets and project management of the state’s 2,039 brigades, but it will still provide voluntary support, equipment and funding to the service from time to time.
It decided last week to back the first of several options for future engagement with the RFS as put forward in a discussion paper by the Local Government and Shires Association (LGSA) of NSW, which is brokering a new arrangement on behalf of councils.
The LGSA’s second option to merge the state’s two fire services (RFS and Fire and Rescue NSW) was discouraged as ‘largely irrelevant’ to councils because it did not resolve the funding issue and also raised questions of how local government would be involved in bushfire management.
Other options included taking over firefighting duties or for councils to keep the current arrangements.
Cr Kevin Skinner said it was ‘time to put the foot down’ to ensure Tweed’s funding of the service was put to best use, given RFS staff expenses statewide had increased in the past five years from $59 million to $93 million.
The Tweed has 10 local RFS units at Uki, Kunghur, Tyalgum, Crabbes Creek, Cudgen, Tweed Coast, Burringbar, Chillingham, Bilambil and Murwillumbah plus the control and training centre at Murwillumbah and council provides 11.3 per cent of their total operating budget.
The total building assets is $858,000 with ownership of the land spread across state, council and private.
But the LGSA says existing arrangements with the RFS is ‘proving to be problematic, complex and inequitable’, especially in terms of funding.
Tweed staff agree, saying they had to find an extra $65,863 to fund an increase in RFS contributions for the 2011-12 budget, which impacted on other expenditure.
‘Further to this councils are not consulted by the state when new equipment policies are introduced. This is frustrating when the policies are implemented resulting in significant increases to the previously agreed expenditure,’ staff said.
In 2010-11, the RFS received $257 million in funding, attended 18,830 incidents, used 70,448 volunteers and employed 920 staff with employee expenses totalling $93,327,000.
The LGSA says councils and volunteers have ‘raised concerns about the RFS escalating staff numbers and associated costs particularly within the RFS middle management at the RFS head office.
‘Over the five years from 2006-07 to 2010-11, RFS staff numbers increased from 685 to 920, a 34.3 per cent increase, and employee expenses increased from $59,950,000 to $93,377,000, a 55.7 per cent increase.’
The LGSA report says the move to retract from operational involvement would not relieve councils of the obligation to fund the RFS through the Emergency Services Levy (ESL).
‘Councils would continue to support and encourage their local RFS volunteers and it was vital they were not negatively affected by proposed changes,’ it said.
‘However it appears that volunteers and communities would benefit from a centralised state agency managing and consistently delivering the full range of RFS activities, rather than from the current disjointed roles and responsibilities for each organisation and area.’