By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE - All 31 firefighters facing layoffs next month will stay on the job at least until August after the federal government agreed to extend the city’s deadline for spending the last of the $6.6 million grant that is paying their salaries.
Fire Chief Jack Bergeron said he was unable to spend the grant and rehire the firefighters fast enough because of civil service hiring procedures that he said are more rigorous in Massachusetts than in most other states. Adding to the delay, he said the grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was months late – and was backdated – when he received it in 2011.
If FEMA had not extended the two-year deadline for spending the grant, the 31 firefighters could have lost their jobs March 17, even as $830,000 of the grant remained on the table, Bergeron said.
Last week, FEMA gave Bergeron five months more to spend the grant, allowing him to keep the 31 firefighters until Aug, 24.
The 31 jobs include all 23 that were cut by Mayor William Lantigua in July 2010 and eight that were lost to attrition under former Mayor Michael Sullivan.
“Everybody that was laid off, we’ve restored,” Bergeron said.
Bergeron also will hire another seven firefighters over the next few months, bringing the ranks to 120. That’s still 16 short of what would be needed to reopen the Tower Hill firehouse, Bergeron said.
The news isn’t all good: the added time to spend the grant means the city has nearly $1 million in unspent FEMA money in the bank as it competes with other fire departments across the United States for a second, ongoing round of grants, which could hobble the application.
Bergeron is asking for another $6 million-plus, which would keep the added firefighters on the job for at least two more years.
If the grant is not renewed after the funding runs out Aug. 24, Bergeron said the 38 newly hired firefighters – the 31 rehired over the last two years and the seven who will be hired this year - could be laid off, which he said would cause him to shut two companies and a firehouse and re-expose the city to the danger that caused the federal government to come to the rescue two years ago. The city reopened the Prospect Hill firehouse only a year ago, after closing it for more than a year.
If the FEMA grant is not renewed, Bergeron said the city would have to come up with $2 million to avoid another round of layoffs and keep the firefighters on the payroll through the end of the upcoming fiscal year. Although the grant doesn’t expire until Aug. 24, the city would have to choose between raising the money or laying off the firefighters by June 30, when it must have a budget in place for the new fiscal year that begins the next day.
Lantigua is scheduled to propose a new budget in May.
When the grant runs out Aug. 24, Lantigua will be in the thick of his re-election campaign. Although he was willing to slash both the fire and police budgets at the start of his term four years ago to keep the budget he inherited from former Mayor Sullivan in the black, he may be less willing to do the same three weeks before the Sept. 17 preliminary election.
The choice may be made easier by the fact that the city has a reserve of about $5 million in the bank, left over from its 2011-12 budget.
Lantigua did not return a phone call last week. But in the State of the City address he delivered to the City Council on Tuesday, he reminded the city that he is hiring the seven new firefighters. He did not mention that the FEMA grant may run out, but suggested how he might react if it does.
“This progress will continue under my watch,” Lantigua said about the new hires. “Our public safety budgets will not be compromised as long as I am in office.”
City Councilor Daniel Rivera, who chairs the council’s budget committee and is the only candidate besides Lantigua to announce so far, said it’s too early to say how the city should react if the grant is renewed.
“The question right now is, is there a full court press to make sure the grant comes in?” Rivera said. “We can’t just wait for Washington to say no.”
Without city or state money, Bergeron said he would look for other savings before resorting to another round of layoffs.
“I would try to reduce my operational costs to bare bones to try to keep people employed,” Bergeron said. “But you can only go so far with that.”