Sixteen months ago, when Vancouver leaders were charmed by the siren song of a federal grant to help fund the fire department, we called the two-year grant "a pig in a poke." That same editorial described the grant's requirements as "bureaucratic blackmail."Now that city officials apparently have decided not to apply for that grant this year, we can say it's good to see the city returning to more reliable budget-writing strategies and establishing stronger control of surviving the lingering economic crisis.
In 2011, Vancouver accepted a $2.3 million Safer grant (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The result at the local level was the re-opening of Fire Station 6 on Northeast 112th Avenue, which had been closed for much of 2011 due to budget cuts. The Safer grant supported the hiring of 13 firefighters.
But as Andrea Damewood reported in Tuesday's Columbian, Vancouver is weaning itself from Safer dependency, at least this year. Among the reasons is the belief that the city has become less competitive against other, more-desperate grant applicants. City Manager Eric Holmes said the city would have to authorize a letter of intent to lay off 13 firefighters, and Holmes believes this decision should be part of the local budgeting process, not in response to pressure from a federal agency.
Bingo! This is precisely what The Columbian editorialized on March 30, 2011, when we opined that the Safer grant "comes with conditions that would back the city into a briar patch full of budget constraints."
Those budgetary edicts from the feds include the mandate that the city must maintain its firefighter staff at 165 for two years, and all vacancies occurring through attrition must be filled. Abandoning those controls, in our view, would not be worth $2.3 million, or any other get-rich-quick scheme.
While that might seem like an attractive offer from the perspective of the fire department and citizens who have fought hard to keep Fire Station 6 open, think of the potential threat those requirements hold over other departments. We said last year that, if the economy worsens, those other departments would be forced to sacrifice more than their fair share as the fire department settles cozily in what we called the equivalent of a "federal government protection program."
The long-term future of this funding issue remains uncertain. Station 6 could be closed again, although if another Safer grant is received by Vancouver, that closure could be limited to a period from the end of 2013 to August 2014. However, accepting another grant would mean a return to the wrong strategy. The city would burrow right back into the cycle of dependency on an unreliable and overly restrictive federal bailout.
The best strategy is to extend the current philosophy that allows city budget problems to be solved by the city, free from meddling by well-intentioned but overly demanding federal agencies. It also means we need to figure out how to protect ourselves with less money. If we weren't paying so much in salaries, benefits and pensions, we would have more firefighters ready to respond.