Friday, March 25, 2011

Can Federal grants make us SAFER?

East St. Louis rehires firefighters… Gallatin to Hire 15 New Firefighters with Grant Award‎... Wilmington awarded grant to hire 13 firefighters… Grant allows Olathe to hire nine firefighters… Federal grant to put eight more Utica firefighters to work‎...

A quick Google search for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants (SAFER) grant program returns headlines from local governments across the country, announcing the hiring or rehiring of firefighters. Since 2004, Congress has authorized around one billion dollars per year for SAFER grants.[1] This program was created to “enhance the local fire departments' abilities to comply with staffing, response and operational standards established by the NFPA and OSHA.”[2]

The rationale for this particular grant is primarily to help local governments close the need-capacity gap in providing fire protection and emergency response. It is a categorical grant, with fairly stringent matching requirements. As a matching grant, it lowers the effective price to hire a firefighter. In theory, if the demand for firefighters is inelastic (fixed) these grants should free up resources to be used for services.

What impact does this have on cities in practice, however? And wouldn’t every city want to apply for this money, especially in times of decreasing revenue? A recent interview with Mayor Rybak of Minneapolis asked this very question:

CP: Why not apply for the SAFER grant?
Rybak: I'm looking for any help we can get for replacing the state aide cuts, but the SAFER grant has some strings attached that could create an even bigger problem next year. It requires you to guarantee staffing levels, which I can't promise if the state is about to make massive cuts to the city.

Part of the stringent matching requirement is that firefighters hired with SAFER funds must remain hired for at least four years. In some instances, this may not be possible and, in fact, some cities have found themselves unable to fund their portion of the cost and have had to return their grant amounts- leaving them in worse shape than before. Of course, forfeiting the grant is not the only possible response in the situation above. Indeed, it is not the most likely option, either. What the SAFER grants essentially do is lock in a portion of the overall budget- usually general fund dollars- so that they are not, for practical purposes, discretionary any more. This exacerbates the pressure on all other services- including other, equally important public safety services.

SAFER grants, and others like it, can be a useful tool for local governments to maintain critical services through years of tight budgets. These grants are far from free money, however, and if cities aren’t thoughtful about the decision to accept, it can constrain future decision-making in unanticipated ways.


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