Monday, December 8, 2008

Controversy for Controversy's Sake, Part II

This past weekend, the News Journal began its comprehensive examination of the volunteer fire services in Delaware by presenting interactive map data that it hoped would speak to the question, "Has Delaware outgrown its volunteer firefighters?" Based on a critical analysis of the maps and data that they presented, I made a very good case (see post below) that the data and information presented really didn't say anything about the issue of volunteer vs. career firefighters and served only as a sensationalist piece of fake news drawn up to sell papers and agitate/scare the public into thinking about an issue that really does not exist.

Today, TNJ has presented its second part in this series, which looks at how volunteer fire departments bring in money and how they spend it. Again, the article is rife with misinformation, misdirection, and psychological BS, and I aim to do a number on it all right here and right now.

Let's take a look first at the headline and by-line for the story:

So, the fire companies are "sitting on" money? To me that language suggests that these fire departments are either unnecessarily hoarding money (to some unknown end) or they're hiding money from the public and it was discovered by TNJ's crack team of investigative journalists. Untrue on both counts. Second, the larger phrase "sit on cash cushions" suggests that the fire companies are so amazingly rich that they can actually afford to make chairs with cushions sewn together from crisp hundred dollar bills...oh, my, what a regal image! The entire headline, however it was meant, is misleading at best and really slimy at worst. No fire department is being accused of illicitly hoarding money nor doing inappropriate things with it. Only when you get to the off-white colored by-line (over a white background...very hard to see even for someone with 20/20 vision) do you get the real story, that our fire departments simply have big savings accounts.

So, our fire departments have become very good at raising money and saving a great deal of it. Why is this bad? Am I missing the scandal here, or is there something else? If not, then it seems a little less than newsworthy. Do you have any idea how much a new ladder truck, fully spec'ed out, costs? Maybe a half-million dollars or more, I'd say. In the event your department's current one gets smashed up in a major accident, wouldn't you like to still be able to save someone's life and property tomorrow morning? If I lived id Magnolia, I think I'd now sleep much better at night knowing about that two million dollar savings fund being "sat on" by my fore department.

Other than the headline, most people who (like me) hate reading will look at the pictures. Let's look at the pics that were meant to reinforce the main ideas of this article:

All of the pictures are photos of "firefighters in action," so we can expect that TNJ is trying to show us what firemen and women do during the day? The first picture shows a firefighter "on an unscheduled break," leading us to mistakenly conclude that our firefighters are apathetic and lazy? Why not show that same guy five minutes earlier or later while he's actually doing work, which is what most of our volunteers never stop doing while at their firehouse. The second and third pictures show firemen calling bingo and selling 50/50 tickets as part of their fundraising activities. So, fire departments are wasting our time and money just trying to raise more money? As we'll see, fundraising makes up less than 1% of the resource use of the fire departments. So, like with their first article in this series, TNJ is trying to show us exceptions to what is the norm in order to defend its indefensible position that the volunteer fire department system should be eliminated.

But it's not over yet, folks! TNJ uses some nicely erroneous and typo-ridden graphics to prove its point about the volunteer "problem" in our fire departments. Let's take a look at those:

Corporate organizations that provide a necessary public service and are provided tax-exempt status by the government are called "non-profit organizations" (NPOs). The volunteer fire departments in Delaware are a great example of an NPO. These types of corporate organizations are governed by a board of directors (not a committee of stockholders like private corporations) and must abide by certain standards as established by any government entity (usually the state, along with a national board or chapter) from which the receive grant money, including not using their resources and money to make more resources and money that can be passed on to corporate board members(this can be done only in a for-profit enterprise). By definition, profit is the excess portion of money generated by selling goods and services for more than they cost to the corporation to make or buy in bulk. This excess money is then passed on to shareholders in the form of divided checks that must be declared as income to Uncle Sam every April.

I cannot believe that TNJ, knowing all they know about the function of NPOs, still decided to stick with the term "profit" and "profit margins" when talking about our volunteer fire companies. They could have used the term "budget excess" or "overage" or the term "reserve funds" which is what municipalities have when their utilities (water, sewer, trash, electricity) make more money than they cost to operate. Having reserve funds is an important part of managing an NPO, since it provides most of the capital money that can be used for big-ticket things like vehicular equipment, communications technology, and up-to-date facilities.

And here are the income and spending charts that TNJ published:

First of all, how confusing is the erroneous placement of "Donations and Fundraisers" on the Chart for Spending? It makes everything more jumbled, super-confusing, and less-decipherable to the regular reader.

Second, the American Institute of Philanthrophy (AIP) ( sets minimum standards for deciding which NPOs people should donate to. One of the most important is the percentage of NPO money used for fundraising. According to AIP, this should be less than 40% for a good charity or NPO. As you can see here, our fire departments spends only 1% of their money on fundraising activities and more than 90% on their actual mission and operations (fire and rescue). Another AIP standard is the "years of available assets," which is the amount of savings the organization has. Well, shoot, TNJ said it was a bad thing to have savings, but not true. Apparently having money in the bank for a rainy day is a good thing! Go figure!

Once again, I am dumbfounded at the level of sansationalism and misinformation that is going on here. And once again, this article omits any comparisons to regional or national numbers, which keeps any contextual facts out of the picture. Once again, I say to The News Journal: why are you doing this to us? However much you think you can fool us, we do have some common sense and we look out for one another. The last thing we need here in lower Delaware is a big upheaval in a major public service that end with many more dead or wounded people who were previously receiving superior service.

Again, please let me know if you agree or disagree with my take on TNJ's numbers and facts. Maybe, as usual, I'm way off base here, but I don't think so.

1 comment:

Delaware Watch said...

I believe the issue about the money is that these fire companies get money from the legislature each year. Are they asking for more funds than they need. Given the state's budget crisis, shouldn't they be given less money this year if they have cash on hand?