Carmel fire (AP)
A firefighter takes a break as he fights a blaze surrounding the youth village of Yemin Orde. Photo by AP
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Five months ago, on July 4, 2010, the cabinet made a historic decision: to allocate NIS 100 million to the Interior Ministry to purchase equipment and materials for the fire department. This was the first time the cabinet had voted to allocate such a large amount - at least in comparison with previous firefighting budgets.

But what happened to the money? That's a good question, and the hot potato is being tossed about, with no one taking responsibility.

TheMarker uncovered mismanagement in ministries that contributed to the grim results of the Carmel fire, which killed 42 people and burned down some 50,000 dunams (12,500 acres ) of forest.

The total annual budget of Israel's 24 different local fire brigades is NIS 500 million. Of this amount, over 80% pays salaries. Another 10% is for property taxes, maintenance and various other ongoing expenses, leaving less than 10% of the budget, only NIS 40-50 million a year, to buy new equipment and supplies.

July's cabinet decision should have given a major boost to Israel's firefighting capabilities: NIS 100 million for supplies and equipment rather than salaries, twice the present annual budget for such purchases. Where has this gone wrong?

The Finance Ministry was supposed to fund NIS 40 million of the sum and the Interior Ministry NIS 30 million, the cabinet decision said. Local authorities were supposed to put up NIS 30 million.

The Finance Ministry said it offered the Interior Ministry the NIS 40 million. It says the Interior Ministry said it needed only NIS 26 million cash - and this amount was transferred. The treasury approved the remaining NIS 14 million as a credit line, Finance officials said.

Out of money

The treasury also said that Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas ) had claimed his ministry did not have the NIS 30 million it was supposed to put up, and therefore asked the treasury for these funds as part of the 2011-2012 budget. The treasury said it indeed added this amount to next year's budget.

Yishai has a different version of the events. His ministry said the treasury only offered it NIS 26 million, and this money was given to the 24 local fire departments to use as they saw fit.

Shimon Romach, the Interior Ministry's fire commissioner, was not interested in the treasury's accounting details regarding money transfers and budgetary approvals. Romach said he parceled out the NIS 100 million based on needs: NIS 87 million for purchasing 53 new fire trucks of different types, another NIS 6 million for inventories of firefighting supplies and over NIS 5 million to build a national computerization system for the different firefighting services.

Sources close to Romach said the purchases were set in train, but the process takes many months to complete. "It takes time to build a new fire truck and computerize the system," said one.

"In any case, the periphery received larger sums than the center [of the country] for every fire truck bought," the source added.

The cabinet decision also stated that the interior minister, in conjunction with the finance and justice ministers, would prepare a draft of a bill to establish a national firefighting authority within a month, and the process of establishing the authority would be completed by the end of 2012.

Yishai's bureau said the ministry completed its draft of the bill on time and gave it to the other two ministries for comments, as the cabinet had ordered.

But the treasury insisted that firefighters be denied the right to strike, just like the police, the Israel Defense Forces and the other security services - and Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini rejected this demand. Since then, the proposal has been gathering dust in the three ministries.

Mutual recriminations between the interior and finance ministries continued yesterday, with each trying to besmirch the other. The treasury said Yishai had not demanded any additional funds for firefighters in next year's budget, even as he "fought for additional budgets for yeshivas."

In response, the Interior Ministry said it had sought NIS 500 million for the firefighting service back in December 2009, but the Finance Ministry objected. Only in July 2010 did the cabinet approve more funds for firefighting, and then only NIS 100 million.