Papillion and Bellevue, like many U.S. cities, face budget challenges. Officials in both communities see a need to hire more firefighters, and both have applied for federal grants to help.
Papillion is growing quickly and trying to match services to that pace while taking over fire coverage for all-volunteer neighbor La Vista. Bellevue is transitioning to a paid fire department while digging itself out of a $5 million budget hole.
These needs are not to be taken lightly.
But any time a city pursues federal funds to offset the costs of hiring new firefighters, police officers or other employees, it offers an opportunity to discuss a key consideration when pursuing federal tax dollars and accepting the federal strings attached.
Leaders of interested communities need to be certain that they and their taxpayers understand what resources will be required to handle the long-term costs of the hires once Uncle Sam shuts off the federal funding spigot.
Because the spigot typically goes dry, particularly in tight budget times. In fact, sequestration budget cuts reduced by $104 million the pool of money for the Federal Emergency Management Agency grant program that Bellevue and Papillion hope to tap.
These firefighter grants would run out after two years, and officials rightly say they have considered the continuing costs. Scores of communities, including Lincoln and Omaha, have applied for similar grants in the past and absorbed the costs. Omaha decided against applying for money this time around because the city wants more flexibility on fire staffing without federal strings tying the city’s hands.
Any local leaders applying for federal help would do well to consider the fine print. Cities that cut corners on federal requirements can face serious consequences.
The feds in 2009 banned 26 police agencies in 16 states from applying for federal stimulus dollars to hire new police officers because those communities had failed to meet requirements to retain police officers hired under earlier Clinton-era COPS grants, according to a USA Today report. Some cash-strapped cities had to pay back the grants and lay off additional officers. Even police in Washington, D.C., had trouble meeting grant requirements that they hire help and keep them on, a Heritage Foundation study found.
The key for any city seeking federal funds for local hiring is clear communication with taxpayers about the local, long-term costs of accepting help.
Cities often use federal tax dollars as a bridge to add employees when doing so with local funds might be politically unpopular. Hiding the long-term costs hinders the public’s ability to weigh in on whether an investment is wise.
If the financial crisis taught us anything, efforts to add staff now and pay later should include clear-eyed discussions of the long-term spending ramifications of the new employees’ salaries, health care and retirement benefits. It’s far from “free money.”
Accepting federal money would have limited Omaha’s flexibility to lay off employees if needed, and that was unacceptable to Mayor Jean Stothert, who is trying to restrain the fire budget.
Considering the combination of need and financial challenges in Bellevue, it’s understandable that the city is seeking $1.7 million in federal funds to hire a dozen firefighters. It recently raised property taxes to address its budget shortfall, but under state law it has few options but to hire paid firefighters.
In Papillion, too, the need exists regardless of its $1.8 million application to hire a dozen firefighters. A growing tax base and the city’s plan to cooperate with La Vista on fire service provides the city more flexibility for shouldering the expansion.
In both cases, there appear to be sound reasons to apply for the grants and to commit to spending the money that it will take to keep those new hires aboard once federal funds are gone.
But the bigger picture is instructive as communities weigh whether to apply for federal funds. Cities should clearly consider and communicate the local budget ramifications of pursuing such funds. And leaders should make certain that the public understands the full costs of “free money” over time.