Calif. routinely underfunds firefighting

Despite devastating wildfires, year in and year out, California routinely under-funds firefighting and typically dips into emergency cash reserves to pay those bills.

"If there was ever a case made for beefing up what we put away for fires, unfortunately, we're making it right now," says Assemblyman John Laird, who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee. .

In a slower fire year like 1998 to 1999, the state set aside $20 million for fighting fires, but ended up paying more than double that.

In the more active 2003/2004 year, the state budgeted $70 million and actual costs more than tripled. The problem is repeated and became pronounced in the fiscal year that ended just last week. The state spent a record $400 million dollars on firefighting, yet, it budgeted only $82 million.

While some of that money is reimbursed by federal or local governments, most is not.

"If we could predict with accuracy how many fires we're going to have in a given year, we'd budget for it," says H.D. Palmer of the California Finance Department.

That may be part of the problem, but adding millions more for firefighting means the money will be taken from other parts of the budget.

Instead, politicians reach into the piggy bank.

"Sometimes we leave the reserve to take care of that and just hope that it's covered," says Laird.

The danger this year, though, in relying on cash reserves to pay for firefighting, is that account only has $800 million in it right now.

You'd think state leaders would have learned by now that funding levels for firefighting have been too low over the last decade. But in this new fiscal year, they budgeted a measly $82 million. Politicians are assuring Californians, they will find the money somewhere, no matter the costs.

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