February 21, 2014

Federal grant means more firefighters, less pain for now

Last year, a revenue shortfall compelled the City Council to pass a budget that would do more with less.

Last year, a revenue shortfall compelled the City Council to pass a budget that would do more with less.

Until tax revenues catch up to spending increases, that’s not an unusual approach to setting budgets.

Most government entities can improve their efficiency, even those that ensure public safety, like the Fort Worth Fire Department. The department lost funding this year for 24 positions left open by attrition.

Like other parts of city government, the department made adjustments necessary to accommodate the belt-tightening.

Fears of rising homeowner insurance rates and forced deactivation of fire companies (a vehicle and its crew) have not come to fruition.

And the department’s spokesman says the cuts have had no effect on rapid response to fire emergencies. Good news.

The department was still settling into its smaller footprint when word came Thursday that the lean times would be short-lived. It was awarded a $3.38 million federal grant that allows the department to fill the vacant positions.

Rep. Kay Granger, a strong advocate for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant in Washington, characterizes it as an “investment in the future of Fort Worth,” a city with a population that grew by 16,000 last year and is likely to see similar growth in the forthcoming years.

The grant will pay the salaries and benefits of firefighters hired over the two-year performance period, May 2014 through May 2016. The department is not waiting to start recruitment, said spokesman Richard Harrison, having already put the hiring process in motion.

But the grant is not a permanent solution to budget shortfalls and staffing shortages. The federal spigot shuts off in two years, at which time the department will find itself much in the same place as last year, trying to do more with less.

It’s possible that budget constraints in 2016 will be less severe. But as North Texas grows, other agencies operating without the help of federal dollars will also want a reprieve.

Adding firefighters to the force will be a good thing. But it will take careful planning and forecasting to ensure the increases can be sustained when the federal money runs out.

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