In Our View: Unreliable Money

Local officials are learning funding lesson: Distant wells can run dry

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Vancouver Police Chief Clifford Cook was correct Monday when he told city councilors that the department must wean itself off federal grants. This is the right approach for several reasons:

The source of the money is unreliable. Several years ago, before the economy tanked, many people never considered the pipelines from distant wells in Washington, D.C., might dry up. But as Cook said Monday, these dollars are far from guaranteed. The economic outlook is as bleak as are any hopes for an increasingly contentious Congress to collaborate on creative budget solutions. Hoping and praying for money from destitute, fighting politicians is no way to run any city department, let alone one responsible for protecting the public.

Federal grants usually are loaded with requirements that place unreasonable constraints on city finance departments. In the case of the current $2.6 million, three-year grant from the Department of Justice to pay for 10 Vancouver police officers, the city must fully fund the positions for an additional year, whether it wants to or not. That means almost a million bucks in increased annual spending, and with no new revenue anticipated, the city will have to cut a million bucks from departments it might not want to reduce.

These decisions should be made locally, not via the ultimatums of federal grants.

Federal grants for public-safety departments are attractive at first, but ultimately they lead to staffing predicaments that managers don’t need or deserve. Cook and other department leaders have been moving officers in and out of school resource programs, auto theft and gang-fighting detective divisions and other areas. Such erratic funding conditions erode these divisions’ effectiveness.

This instability in jobs hurts morale in the Police Department, Cook said. “There’s some anxiety in our agency. Most cops want to have a clear view of what we’re doing, where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.”

The reduced morale often leads to fewer applicants, making it more difficult for Vancouver — otherwise a fantastic place to work, live and raise a family — to attract high-quality candidates.

Uncertainty about federal grants creates myriad problems during contract negotiations between city officials and union leaders. For example, Vancouver city officials still have not reached agreement with the firefighters union. Until that happens, the city remains uncertain about accepting a $2.3 million federal grant. As we’ve editorialized before, the city should have already rejected the federal grant, and that would’ve taken at least one complication off the bargaining table.

The fire department grant in question has led many local activists — including the Image Neighborhood Association, which understandably seeks to reopen Fire Station 6 in that area — to urge the city’s acceptance. But this grant also includes the unwieldy requirement that the department must keep its staffing levels the same for the two years it has the grant, no matter why firefighters leave.

Followers of local funding matters should be careful about comparing apples to oranges. For example: Why are we considering building parks when the fire department is strapped for money? (The former is a countywide matter through the Greater Clark Parks District; the latter a city issue. Also, parks construction funds are voter-approved for that purpose only; using the money elsewhere is illegal.)