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Mich. city turns down $8M SAFER grant

Mayor: FEMA said that, despite letter citing concerns about not being able to maintain requirements, 'there was no way to stop the grant'

By David Komer
The News-Herald

TAYLOR, Mich. — An $8.1 million federal grant for the Fire Department is in jeopardy.

A letter by Mayor Jeffrey Lamarand asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to withdraw the application has left the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant in limbo.

A June 5 email from FEMA to Fire Chief Bob Tompos says, "We have already made notifications ... the department would not be accepting the grant" based on "the letter provided by the mayor's office."

The email also says the city's withdrawal of the application was based on Lamarand's letter to FEMA and on a conversation a FEMA official had with Amanda Banas, director of executive affairs.

On Friday, an announcement on the FEMA website said the Fire Department had received the grant, the largest one nationally this year by far. Flint's $6.9 million award is second highest.

As of yesterday, that announcement still was on the website.

However, no formal notification had been received by the city as of late Monday afternoon, Lamarand and Tompos said.

Tompos said he did not know how the email became public.

Lamarand said his letter to FEMA cited concerns about the city not being able to maintain the grant's requirements, but he said he was told by FEMA that, despite his letter, "there was no way to stop the grant."

The budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, calls for reducing the Fire Department's staff from 24 to 19. Any staffing reduction during the two-year grant, which would allow 32 of its 38 laid-off firefighters to return, would nullify it.

The city also is in long-running contract negotiations with International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1252.

A grant amendment for overlooked costs to the city was filed by the administration, asking for about $2 million more than originally anticipated.

The SAFER grant provides $400 million annually to fire departments around the country to meet national minimum staffing standards.

"We were told there was no way to withdraw; that (email) makes no sense to me," Lamarand said. "We have concerns. We have a couple scenarios that need to be addressed, including the future cost incurred by the city not covered by the grant.

"The grant is not a long-term solution. It is a short-term fix and not necessarily a long-term fix."

In the email and in a conversation with Tompos, FEMA has granted a 30-day window to accept or decline the award, with additional time possibly granted by a written request.

An agreement with the firefighters' union and a letter by Lamarand rescinding his previous letter would be needed, Tompos said.

"We could lose it if there is no agreement by July 1," Tompos said. "They haven't said they are taking it away from us. It isn't a lost cause yet.

"I'm hopeful we can work out our differences."

Lamarand said everything is under review.

"We can't give them layoff notices after the grant runs out — just buy two years of time and then lay off everyone," Lamarand said. "We're in the same situation. All those people in two years would bank $30,000 in compensated absences. If we laid them off, it would be $900,000."

In January 2011, the city had 61 firefighters, with 14 on duty each day at three stations. Since then, 38 have been laid off, leaving 23, not including Tompos. Five are on duty each day at one station, and the other two stations are closed. As part of the layoffs, the department stopped ambulance transport. HealthLink, a private company, now handles it.

The 24-square-mile city has a population of 63,131 based on 2010 U.S. Census Bureau figures.

If some laid-off firefighters did not wish to come back or got new jobs, additional hires could be brought in using the grant money.

Some members of the City Council are outraged at Lamarand's decision to withdraw the application. A few even believe he is undercutting firefighters for playing a large role in a failed recall election against him in November.

Councilman John Delo has contacted FEMA to see if the council can do anything to stop Lamarand's request. The council previously approved the city's application for the grant.

"It makes no sense to me that he would let his personal feelings override the city's safety," said Delo, who added that the majority of the council was not consulted first by Lamarand. "The fact that the firefighters helped get him elected (in 2009), then worked for his recall, all of that has an impact.

"I don't care about negotiations. I want that $8.1 million in the city's hands."

Councilman Rick Sollars said he has examined the grant from multiple angles and can't "see the downside."

Sollars also believes a larger firefighting force could mean bringing back ambulance transport. He said the insurance money earned by the department from making runs — between $1 million and $1.5 million annually — could go toward a third year of increased staff.

"Yes it's a short-term fix, but that's like saying you're not going to buy new tires for your car because you'll just need to buy more," he said. "I think it's political suicide for (Lamarand). The morale of this city would be lower than it already is. I would have to question his deliberate intentions to turn this down.

"It's short-term, but it could lead to a long-term solution."

Lamarand said nothing is personal and the easy decision would be to "take the money and run." He said considering the long-term financial impact is what previous administrations too often overlooked, causing the financial problems the city now faces.

"From where we're sitting, I have concerns that the money isn't better used for another community," he said. "Allen Park is ready to get rid of their entire Fire Department. Whether or not they applied for the grant, I can't control. We're going to evaluate it, whether or not it is best suited for this city."

Republished with permission from The News-Herald

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