By Keith Eddings
---- — 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.
“It will be a challenge, combined with all the other programs that need to be funded in Fiscal Year 14,” said Robert Nunes, the city’s state-appointed fiscal overseer, who has veto power over city spending. “I’ll offer my recommendations, but I can assure you that what the mayor presents will be balanced.”
Lantigua did not return a phone call yesterday.
Losing the firefighting grant could dislodge what the mayor has said would be a cornerstone of his re-election campaign: his success rebuilding police and fire services.
In his State of the City address on Feb. 5, he said reopening the Prospect Hill firehouse 13 months ago was one of the successes stories of his first term, and he said the last seven of the 38 firefighters to be rehired with the FEMA grant would be on the job within a few months.
“This progress will continue under my watch,” Lantigua said in what was one of the few applause lines of his 42-minute speech to the City Council. “Our public safety budgets will not be compromised as long as I am in office.”
Yesterday, Fire Chief Bergeron said FEMA’s decision not to renew the grant could mean the seven firefighters may not be rehired because the funding for their salaries runs out in five months. He said he is hoping Lantigua and the City Council can find the funding to keep the 38 firefighters on the payroll until FEMA begins awarding the next round of public safety grants later this year.
“Obviously, I’d recommend keeping everybody employed,” Bergeron said. “The city would have to come up with quite a bit of money to make up the difference.”
Although the city has about $5 million on hand from last year’s budget surplus, Budget Director Mark Ianello told the City Council last night that tapping it to keep the firefighters on the payroll would be “problematic” because he said the surplus should be used only for one-time capital needs, not for on-going operating expenses.
Councilor Marc Laplante, whose South Lawrence district is served by the South Broadway firehouse, said FEMA’s decision to let the firefighting grant run out should be “the prism by which any future budget discussions must be viewed.”
“What we don’t want to do is revert back to three years ago, when we were relying heavily on mutual aid, when other cities around Lawrence became one of the first lines of defense in fighting fires,” Laplante said. “If we start relying heavily on mutual aid again, other municipalities are going to re-evaluate how they provide it to the city of Lawrence.”
The $6.6 million grant came from a $420 million fund FEMA awarded through a program of competitive awards to fire departments nationwide, based mostly on their needs.
When the two-year grant was announced in January 2011, the federal officials who helped arrange it were not specific about how the city might keep on the firefighters if it were not renewed in 2013.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” said U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, said at the time, adding that the cuts the grants restored had reduced the city’s ability to fight fires to an “unacceptable level, which put the city and its residents at risk.”
Tsongas could not be reached late yesterday.
Pat Driscoll, president of the union that represents Lawrence firefighters, said the risk will return if a new round of layoffs occurs.
“It’ll be devastating,” Driscoll said. “We’ll be back to where we were two years ago.”
The notice to the city that the FEMA grant would not be renewed came in an unsigned and undated form letter from David Kaufman, acting assistant administrator of the agency’s grant programs. Kaufman said the city would receive “a separate e-mail notification in the coming weeks which will address some of the key concerns which were noted within your application.”
FEMA received 1,551 applications last year requesting more than $1.2 billion under the grant program, called the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Program, or SAFER, Kaufman said.