New Bedford Fire Department gets federal grant to plug $12m budget hole

The city has received a $12 million federal grant that will allow it to take 63 firefighter positions off life support for two years and dispel worries, at least for now, that layoffs were coming.

"This is something for us to be thankful for on Thanksgiving," Fire Chief Michael Gomes said Tuesday night.

The $12.27 million SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant will ease the pressure on city coffers, where the funding for the 63 positions has come from since the federal money ran out in September.

The grant pumped $3.5 million into city coffers two years ago, allowing the Fire Department to keep 70 firefighters ó some who later retired or quit and had their positions slashed from the force afterward ó on the payroll and prevent two stations from shuttering. The Federal Emergency Management Agency ó which manages the program ó denied the department's request for another round of funding in 2012 because it still had funds left over from the first grant.

The city applied again for a third round of funding earlier this year, but October's government shutdown slowed down the process and federal officials did not make a decision by the time the money ran out in mid-September.

"There was a lot at stake. I know people have been on pins and needles about this, for obvious reasons," said Congressman William Keating, who pressured federal officials over the grant for months. The city also lobbied heavily, with Mayor Jon Mitchell taking two trips to Washington, D.C., to discuss the grant with federal officials.

Mitchell on Tuesday night noted that the grant was the second-highest award in the country and added he was "very pleased" to see it come through. He thanked Keating and Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey for assisting the city.

The city has two years of breathing room, but Keating said it remains to be seen if SAFER will be around in 2016.

"These are transition grants, they're not forever and the city knows this," he said, adding that the city would have to assume responsibility for funding a Fire Department within its means.

Mitchell said the city would need to have a "very public" discussion over the next two years about how to maintain its "high-functioning" Fire Department while making it affordable.

"I see the renewal of the grant as a financial bridge," Mitchell said, adding that he thought a consultant should be hired to study the department.

Keating described the grant as a "huge" public safety boost to the city and said it would also keep local businesses feeling safe about investing in the city. The congressman called the SAFER grant his "number one priority" district-wide over the past months.

Gomes said the grant will pay only for staff. He said decisions about the Fire Department's future staffing are "decisions that will need to be made but they don't have to be made today."

(This article originally appeared in the Standard-Times)