Smoke Gets In Your... Budget

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As we choke our way through a particularly bad air day here in Sacramento -- blame the mix of the heat and the lingering smoke from the myriad of area wildfires -- it's worth noting the impact of firefighting on the state's already strapped finances.

Data released last week by the Governor Schwarzenegger's Department of Finance says that emergency fire suppression costs for the fiscal year that ended a week ago today totaled almost $393 million. That's far and away more than state governments costs for any fire season in the last decade.

For the current spate of blazes (remember, the above figure goes all the way back to last year's devastating southern California fires), the price tag through last week stood at $62.4 million.

When firefighters deploy anywhere in the state... they also take along the bean counters. Seriously.

"When a crew is deployed to fight a fire of the magnitude of the fires we’re seeing now, one of the key members of that group is staff that handles the accounting," says H.D. Palmer, the governor's budget spokesman.

And as the fires burned and burned in the summer of 2007 and earlier this year, they also burned a gaping hole in state finances. Palmer says the budgeted amount for fire suppression in the just-ended fiscal year was $82.4 million. The extra cash came out of the state's reserve fund, which itself only amounted to $858 million.

In other words... more than a third of the reserve cash set aside in last year's budget deal ended up going to fighting fires.

Some, if not most, of that moolah comes back to the state in the form of reimbursements from the federal government. While state firefighters are first on the scene, as much as 75% of the final costs are often paid back by the feds.

But don't hold your breath waiting for the money. Palmer's colleagues in the Schwarzenegger fiscal shop say federal government accountants often quarrel with state accountants over the bills... a process that can take two to three years to complete.

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About John Myers

John Myers is Sacramento Bureau Chief for KQED Public Radio and "The California Report," heard daily on 23 public radio stations across the Golden State.

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