LORAIN — The expiration of a federal taxpayer grant for firefighters is expected to trigger layoffs, fire station closings and cause longer response times to fires.
City officials and firefighters had been optimistic about the renewal of an approximately two-year, $1.73 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that expires March 20. But Tuesday, they learned that the grant, which paid for up to 12 firefighters, isn’t being renewed.
“Everybody’s devastated,” said firefighter Jonathon George, president of Local 267 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “We had every indication that it was coming, so you can imagine our shock. Guys just can’t believe it.”
George said the department had about 100 firefighters when he joined the department in 1997 and now has about 80. The ranks dropped as low as 59 for about two weeks in 2010 during previous budget cuts and stood at 70 in early 2011. The department has an approximately $8 million annual budget, including the grant, and about 18 firefighters per shift.
Until the grant was awarded, Fire Station 4 at 401 Idaho Ave., on the city’s east side was closed. Fire Chief Tom Brown didn’t return calls Thursday night, but George said if the ranks decrease to 70, Station 4 will close when there are 16 or fewer firefighters per shift.
If there are 13 or fewer, Station 4 and Station 7 at 2111 W. Park Drive on the west side also would close. The closings could delay response times, which average about 3.5 minutes.
George said the grant allowed city officials to spend general fund money on other departments and he hopes they won’t lay off all the firefighters paid for with the grant. However, Mayor Chase Ritenauer said they probably would, if efforts to restore the grant by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Avon, fail.
“When the grant was accepted, the premise was that if the grant is not there, we cannot fund these jobs,” said Ritenauer, who took office in January 2012. “If the revenue source isn’t there, then the expenditure can’t be there.”
Ritenauer said the firefighters may be the victims of efforts by congressional Republicans to cut the nation’s approximately $1 trillion deficit and $16.5 trillion national debt. Congressional Republicans and President Barack Obama in 2011 agreed to $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts over 10 years with $109 million this year beginning in January if a budget deal wasn’t reached. The cuts were delayed in January and are set to begin March 1 if no deal is reached.
While talk of balancing the budget may sound good to citizens in the abstract, Ritenauer said the reality of a fire station closing in their neighborhoods may not sound so good.
“These types of grants could be a chip in the showdown between the president and congressional Republicans,” he said. “There is just immense downward pressure on local governments.”
With austerity measures likely to continue, Ritenauer said local governments can’t rely on grants and must discuss regionalizing fire services. He said community borders shouldn’t stop a fire department from another city or town from responding first to a fire in another community if its fire station is closer to the fire.
“When these types of financial pressures continue from the state and the federal level, it is going to force that discussion to occur, because the money just isn’t there,” he said.
Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or firstname.lastname@example.org.