BROWNSVILLE — The Brownsville Volunteer Fire Department is under funded at best. In fact, it's one major equipment failure away from shutting down completely. This could mean no medical first response or fire response for the entire 100 square miles of the Brownsville fire district. This is why the department is vying for the creation of a fire tax district.

“I don't want to see my taxes go up, I don't think anybody does,” said Brownsville Volunteer Fire Department Chief Rob Mattox, “But if we're going to continue to provide the service, we have to have funding.”

In 2010 the Brownsville Volunteer Fire Department's yearly expenses overshadowed income by over $12,000. Last year was a noted improvement with the department pulling in about $800 profit, but that's still not enough to keep things working effectively. The creation of a fire tax district would provide the department with a permanent, reliable source of income.

If a fire tax district were created, taxes would be levied against all real property within the Brownsville fire district. Every landowner would be contributing an equal amount based solely on the value of their property. State law regulates these taxes and allows a tax levy of up to 60 cents per $1,000 of taxable evaluation in the district for the purchase of firefighting equipment. It also allows $1 per $1,000 for the maintenance of the fire protection district. As an example of the potential tax increase, a property with an assessed value of $75,000 would experience a total tax increase of $120 per year — all of it funding the fire department.

“We're recommending that the levy be set at 1.6, which is the maximum,” Mattox said. “We've been operating so long on a shoestring budget that we're way behind on maintenance and buying equipment. A few years into this, if we're able to get by on less money, we would lower that levy, we wouldn't tax for any more than the funding we need to just operate.”

Mattox, a 15-year veteran with the department, is anything but pandering for newer, sleeker equipment. Two of the department's four fire response vehicles are over 25 years old. The department trained three times this past fall on their 30-year-old structure pumper truck and it failed all three times. The structure pumper truck is used to fight structure fires, pumping 1,000 gallons of water a minute to its fire hoses. Replacing this older equipment isn't a desire issue, it's a need.

“If you've got two men on a nozzle inside a burning house and their water pressure goes away, that's a bad deal — a potentially life threatening situation,” Mattox said.

But it's not just the equipment that isn't operating under full potential. The department's 17-member team is required to train so many hours each year to be prepared for whatever the job may throw at them. Training hours, however, are lower than Mattox would like because the team has to spend so much time on fundraising efforts. In 2011 the team spent 1,186 hours training and 1,090 hours fund raising. Mattox said that the permanent funding provided by the tax district would enable his team to essentially double their amount of training hours — a good thing considering the current state of the forest.

“With the mountain pine beetle and the overgrown, overstocked conditions (of the forest), our fuels (for potential fires) are higher than they've ever been. Our fires are more intense and more severe than they've ever been,” Mattox said. “Last summer we had a firefighter die in the Southern Hills. We had a Forest Service truck burned over. We're seeing fire behavior and problems on fires we haven't seen before. So training is just critical to keeping our firefighters safe, and to trying to protect people's resources and lives.”

The Brownsville Volunteer Fire Department provides more than just firefighting services. They also provide first response medical services. Mattox said there were 15 emergency medical calls last year alone.

“One was a pregnant lady that went into labor in a snow storm. Another was a lady that had fallen off her deck and down the hill below the house. Another was a guy who cut open an artery in his leg with a chainsaw,” Mattox said. “If we saved even one life, that to me is worth a tax to support the fire department.”

The department has organized a series of open meetings to inform the public on the potential creation of the fire tax district. The next meetings are scheduled for 1 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 25 and 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 1. Both meetings will be held at the Brownsville fire station, located at 11790 Brownsville Rd., in Deadwood.

The department needs to have a petition for the fire tax district signed by 25 percent (or roughly 160) of the Brownsville fire district's approximately 637 registered voters in order for it to appear on a ballot. Mattox said he hopes the election will take place sometime in late April or early May.

For more information contact Chief Mattox at 578-1556, or bvfd@brownsvillevfd.com.

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