LAWRENCE — Thirty-eight firefighters and two firehouses could go back on the chopping block after federal emergency officials announced they will not renew the $6.6 million grant that allowed the city to rehire firefighters lost to layoffs and attrition.
The announcement threatened to plunge the city back into the public safety crisis brought on as its firefighting ranks were depleted in 2009 and 2010, when Lawrence relied so heavily on mutual aid to fight fires that neighboring municipalities threatened to withhold it.
The announcement also immediately reopened a debate on the city’s budget priorities that rippled through last night’s City Council meeting, when councilors questioned whether they should approve several pending expenses, including $100,000 to buy new voting booths, while faced with a new round of layoffs in the Fire Department.
The news that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would stop paying the salaries of the 38 firefighters was the first blow of a one-two punch the feds landed on Lawrence yesterday. The city must also close its airport control tower in North Andover because federal funding is no longer available to operate it.
The federal grant that paid the firefighters’ salaries runs out in August, two months into the upcoming fiscal year, meaning Mayor William Lantigua and the City Council will need to find 10 months of funding — nearly $2.8 million — in the new budget to maintain firefighting services through the new fiscal year. Along with the layoffs, the Prospect Hill and South Broadway firehouses, which were reopened over the last year or so as the firefighters were recalled, could close again, Fire Chief Jack Bergeron said yesterday.
Finding the money will be a significant challenge for a city already operating on the fiscal edge, officials said yesterday. Lantigua is scheduled to meet with his top fiscal advisers this morning and will present a budget proposal to the City Council by May 28.