Utah county gets $1.5M to fight fires

By Jeremiah Stettler
The Salt Lake Tribune
Copyright 2006 The Salt Lake Tribune
All Rights Reserved 

It's not quite the lottery, but it feels that way for two Utah County fire departments that recently won big in the federal grant game.

The Lehi and Lone Peak fire departments will get a $1.5 million boost from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to hire new officers.

With the government handout, Lone Peak, which covers the upscale bedroom communities of Alpine, Highland and Cedar Hills, will see its full-time ranks quadruple - rising to 12 full-time firefighters from three. Lehi will add six to its full-time staff of 11.

"This is a coup for us," said Lehi Fire Marshal Kerry Evans.

Lehi and Lone Peak are among 250 fire departments selected nationwide to receive funding this year. More than 1,700 departments applied.

Homeland Security spokeswoman Branda Napper called the money a "jump start" for departments that need firepower but can't pay for it themselves - a program that will cost U.S. taxpayers $108 million this year.

The firefighters aren't entirely free, Napper said. The grant money declines over five years, forcing fire departments to pay a larger and larger share until they sustain the staff themselves.

Lone Peak received the state's heftiest handout this year, $932,000, despite serving three wealthy communities whose family incomes are well above the state average and where most homes average $300,000 to $500,000 in value, according to U.S. Census data.

Tom Finnigan, spokesman for the federal watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, said the federal government is dabbling where it doesn't belong. The fire grant only encourages communities - especially rich ones - to seek funding "when they really don't need it," he said.

"If an affluent community can't afford to protect itself, it should take a hard look at its budget priorities and eliminate more wasteful projects," Finnigan said. "This is the responsibility of the local government."

Lone Peak officials say they tackled the problem locally, devising a five-year plan that would swell the suburbs' ranks with or without the grant. The grant is a bonus, they say, shoring up finances that already are strained by a large bedroom community.

"We don't have a commercial tax base," said Deputy Fire Chief Brad Freeman. "That is the problem."

Freeman said a Wal-Mart in Alpine or Costco in Highland would change the district's financial health considerably.

Homeland Security officials said they do not consider the economic characteristics of a region before awarding a grant, only the financial need of a fire department and its plans for perpetuating the new positions.

Lone Peak was one of 19 Utah fire departments to apply for funding this year. Napper declined to name departments that did not receive funding.

With the grant, Lone Peak will meet its staffing goals "four years faster and a million dollars cheaper," enabling firefighters to handle the region's explosive growth rate, Freeman said.

Highland, Alpine and Cedar Hills have grown more than 80 percent as a region since the 2000 census, according to population estimates from each community. Individually, Cedar Hills has nearly tripled in size and Highland has almost doubled.

The district can't keep up with that kind of growth without more personnel, Freeman said. Emergency calls have climbed from 106 in 1997 to more than 1,300 this year.

Lehi officials are equally optimistic, saying their community already has seen the impact of short-staffing. The city's fire engine sometimes lags eight to 10 minutes behind an ambulance when responding to a house fire or crash because of lack of staffing, the fire marshal said.

Lehi was awarded $621,000 - enough to hire six new officers and to staff an engine full time.

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