EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 7, 2013

Lawrence needs answer to end of fire grant|Editorial:Lawrence needs answer to end of fire grant

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Lawrence officials have long known that a federal grant allowing the city to rehire laid-off firefighters was a temporary fix. They’ve known that when the two-year grant expired, they would have to find another source for the $6.6 million it provided.

We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, was their attitude.

Now, the bridge is dead ahead. And Lawrence officials, as usual, have no plan for crossing it.

Tuesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced it would not renew the $6.6 million, two-year grant that allowed Lawrence to rehire 38 firefighters and reopen two firehouses closed after a budget crisis in 2009 and 2010.

The layoffs and station closures created a public safety emergency. Lawrence no longer had sufficient firefighting forces to respond properly even to minor fires. The city began calling for mutual aid support from surrounding communities — so frequently that neighboring fire chiefs began to complain and threaten to withhold their assistance.

Lawrence cannot fall back into that crisis. The administration of Mayor William Lantigua needs to put together a funding plan that will allow the city to maintain its basic public safety services. This is the first priority of any municipality. The city cannot depend on other communities to provide its basic firefighting services. That is an unfair imposition on good neighbors.

The grant funds will run out in August, two months into the next fiscal year. That means the city will have to come up with 10 months of funding — $2.8 million — to keep all the firefighters on duty and the firehouses open through the 2014 fiscal year.

“It will be a challenge, combined with all the other programs that need to be funded in Fiscal Year 14,” Robert Nunes, the city’s state-appointed fiscal overseer, said. “I’ll offer my recommendations, but I can assure you that what the mayor presents will be balanced.”

Lantigua is scheduled to submit his budget to the City Council by May 28.

Amazingly, seven of the 38 firefighters who were to return have yet to be rehired. Lantigua said in his State of the City address that they will be ready in “a few months.” At this point, with so little time left in the grant, Fire Chief Jack Bergeron said they may not be rehired at all.

In his annual address in February, Lantigua pointed proudly to the reopening of the Prospect Hill firehouse and the rehiring of laid-off firefighters during his tenure.

“This progress will continue under my watch,” Lantigua said in his State of the City speech to the City Council. “Our public safety budgets will not be compromised as long as I am in office.”

But that’s easy to promise when someone hands you a sack with $6.6 million inside. Spending other people’s money is easy; managing your own funds wisely is more challenging.

Another too easy solution is to tap into the $5 million surplus from last year’s budget. Budget Director Mark Ianello told the City Council that the surplus should be used only for one-time capital needs, not for on-going operating expenses. He’s right. The surplus should be spent only as a last resort.

Surpluses, like federal grants, are fleeting things. Once they are gone, they’re gone — but the problem they fixed temporarily remains.