When the Firehouse’s Lights Go Out: Budget Deal Slashes Funds For First Responders
If the lights in your neighborhood fire department are dark, the budget deal that President Obama struck with Congress last week may be the reason. As the New York Times reports, the budget for a program that helps communities facing economic hard times hire police officers was cut by $52 million.
Under the program, cities were awarded grants from the Justice Department to pay the full salary and benefits of new officers for three years, a definite boon to cities like Camden, NJ, and Oakland, CA, which have had to fire police officers in recent years . With the program’s funding severely reduced, roughly 200 fewer officers will be funded this year than last year, when 1,388 officers were hired under it.
Further, the budget deal also starkly reduces funds for a similar program to pay for firefighters in struggling cities. As the New York Times says, cities including Philadelphia, San Diego and Baltimore have used the grants to pay for firefighters, rather than having to use “rolling brownouts,” in which different firehouses are shut down each day because cities cannot afford to staff them. Under the new budget, the amount of money that can be awarded to someone is below the true cost of a firefighter’s salary and fringe benefits and city officials say there is little reason even to apply for the program’s funds. One case in point:
Lawrence, Mass., a city 25 miles north of Boston that laid off 23 firefighters and shut down half of its six firehouses last summer, is a perfect example. The city is in the process of rehiring the 23 firefighters, along with 15 new firefighters, with the help of federal grants. And it will soon reopen one of its closed firehouses.
Officials there doubt that they could have done so if the grants had not covered the full cost of the firefighters. “We don’t have the resources to cover the rest of it,” said Leonard Degnan, the chief of staff to Lawrence’s mayor, William Lantigua. “Without that grant, you would have an absolute public safety fiasco in the city of Lawrence.”
With reduced numbers of firefighters and of police officers in cities with high crimes, public safety is going to be compromised, and at a time when, due to cuts in other social service programs like community mental health services, first responders are already being called on to do a lot more than fight crime.
So much for safety first.
Photo by Rennett Stowe.