8 Feb 2017

Fire levies tipped to rise by $36

9:23 am on 8 February 2017

Homeowners can expect to pay higher insurance premiums to help fund a restructured fire service.

Close up of a fire truck

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Under the Fire and Emergency New Zealand Bill currently before Parliament, the fire service and rural fire authorities will merge to become one organisation from the first of July this year.

Internal Affairs minister Peter Dunne said the aim was to address under investment in rural fire services, as well as the cost of amalgamating 40 separate organisations into a new national body.

Levies have not increased since 2008.

The country's rural fire authorities are currently funded by councils, forestry companies and the Department of Conservation, but under the changes the average home owner will also pay.

The increase in premiums is likely to be around $36 a year.

Cabinet had already agreed to the increased levy, which would be added to property and motor vehicle insurance from next year once the bill passes.

Marlborough rural fire chief Richard McNamara said he supported the change.

He said there were currently more than 12,000 emergency volunteers around the country, and the time had long passed for the management service to be modernised.

As well as the November earthquake, the region's fire and emergency services had handled at least a dozen major fires in the region over the past 12 months, he said.

The New Zealand Fire Service said nationwide, rural firefighters were called out about 1200 times a year.

A fire service spokesperson said there were 5676 fires recorded in the rural jurisdiction in the 2016 calendar year.

Rural fire forces, which are mostly made up of volunteers, attended 1143 of these fires, plus an additional 49 fires in the urban jurisdiction.

Mr McNamara said merging urban and rural services would make the best use of resources and skills.

"It seems crazy to me that in a country that has a little over 4.5 million people, that we have a New Zealand fire service and over 40 rural fire authorities all scattered through the country. It's a disparate model and frankly, we can do better."

About $450 million was spent each year on urban and rural fire fighting, and the public deserved a service that functioned at its best, he said.

Mr Dunne said 75 submissions were received on the proposed new levy rates through a public consultation process late last year, and not all were happy.

"The difficulty I've got to balance is some of the concerns that have been expressed, and any lessening of the levy income for the new fire and emergency services will compromise their ability to deliver those services.

"You know - most people want to go to heaven but few want to die."

Associate Health Minister, Peter Dunne, at the United Nations for the General Assembly Special Session on World Drug Problem, New York.

Peter Dunne said the changes to the Fire Service were partly aimed at addressing under investment in rural fire services. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Fire service Commission Rural Fire Committee member Tim King said it was one of the largest reorganisations undertaken by a government department.

Mr King, who is also the deputy mayor of Tasman District, has been involved in the review as local government representative in the working group.

He said a major driver had been the need for consistency of delivery around the country.

"The urban fire service has a consistent delivery model - whether the brigade is in Christchurch or Wellington it's very consistent. Rural fire is very different in how it's run, how it's funded, and who the key players are varies all around the country."

Mr King said smaller communities had been assured they would get a better service, but it was yet to be tested.

"The expectation and the promise is that those rural areas will see a greater degree of support and resourcing. However, it's like everything - the proof is in the pudding and until it's actually implemented, the final legislation is passed and the new entity takes over, there are never any guarantees in these things."

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