Schumer urging Homeland Security not to revoke Utica's firefighter grants

By WKTV News

UTICA, N.Y. - U.S. Senator Charles Schumer says he urged Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano to ensure the City of Utica that $400,000 in unused 2010 SAFER grant funds, and another roughly $500,000 already utilized, will remain Utica's, despite the city's need to layoff four SAFER-funded firefighter positions.

Schumer said that while he believes the city of Utica is working hard to prevent layoffs to firefighters, severe budget constraints are making it difficult for the city to retain a number of police and fire officials, in addition to other civil service jobs that face possible cuts.

Scumer said that Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri has been forced to propose rolling back the local fire department budget in order to quell the fiscal emergency. These cuts necessitate the layoff of four SAFER-funded firefighters.

DHS has stated in the past that SAFER grants will be suspended or revoked if funded positions are terminated for any reason, and this rule would force the city to lay off an additional four firefighters. Schumer is fighting for these funds so that Utica can keep enough firefighters on the job to safeguard its citizens.

"The Department of Homeland Security ought to let Utica retain its SAFER grant award so that they can keep the city secure," said Schumer. "DHS must step up and partner with Utica to keep firefighters on the job, while the local government extinguishes their budgetary fires. If a city has to layoff first responders due to rising costs and falling revenues precipitated by the economy, the federal government's response should not be to take back the few dollars Utica has left. Budget cuts should not make a city poorer and its families less safe. We need to work together to keep Utica's firefighters working."

Under Department of Homeland Security Policy, if a city with SAFER grant-funded positions lays off workers, that city would be forced to give back all of its SAFER funds. In this case, Utica would be forced to lay off an additional four firefighters, along with returning the funds they have used to the U.S. Treasury Department.

Given the current fiscal climate and budget difficulties in Utica and in local governments around the country, Schumer says he is asking the Department of Homeland Security not to exacerbate the difficult situation and allow Utica to keep the federal funds they have already been rewarded.

Schumer said he reminded Sec. Napolitano that Utica knows the dangers of underfunded fire departments all too well. As recently as the 1990s, Utica suffered from widespread arson, and was referenced as one of the nation's arson capitals.

For this reason, Schumer said he pushed for DHS SAFER grants to be directed to Utica. He says that with these grants, the city could reassure its residents that the days when arson was a local epidemic will never return.

"Utica's families should not be threatened with regression in its ability to remain safe from fires due to fiscal problems out of their control. If DHS forces the city to return its remaining funds, this reversion could easily become a frightening reality," Schumer said in a statement.

Schumer said he is asking Secretary Napolitano to work with city officials to devise a plan that allows the permanent retention of their 2010 SAFER award, despite the potential layoff of four SAFER funded jobs. Senator Schumer says Utica has extraordinary circumstances as a city in need of a balanced checkbook, a city that can never return to the days when arson was a constant nightmare.

A copy of Sen. Schumer's letter appears below:

Secretary Janet Napolitano Department of Homeland Security U.S. Department of Homeland Security Washington, D.C. 20528

March 15, 2012

Dear Secretary Napolitano:

I write today on behalf of the City of Utica and their 2010 SAFER grant. In 2010, the Utica Common Council applied for and was awarded funding to hire eight (8) firefighters. The award provided a welcomed boost to staffing while also allowing the city to save on Fire Department overtime costs. To date, the city has utilized more than half of its total SAFER award, leaving a balance of around $400,000 that will continue to be disbursed pending the submission of agency-approved activity reports.

However, Utica's SAFER award, while beneficial to the city, does require some special agency attention. Utica-specific budget hurdles, catalyzed by soaring health care and pension costs, are forcing the city to reassess the complements of both police and fire officials, along with various civilian posts. These efforts are being made in hopes of preventing a tax increase that would exceed 20%. More specifically, the Mayor has proposed a decrease to the fire complement. A portion of this change would be attained through the layoff of four (4) previously funded SAFER positions. While the city is still actively vetting ways to avoid these SAFER layoffs altogether, I respectfully urge Utica to be reassured their already utilized SAFER funds, and the funds they have yet to be appropriated from this award, remain in Utica. Meaning, no amount of their original award would ever revert back to Treasury, where it would do much less good.

Utica is a city that was once plagued by arson. In the 90's, the city stood out as one of America's arson capitals. The Department of Homeland Security must act as a partner with the City of Utica because neither I nor Utica officials want to see that distinction return. SAFER grants, like this one I helped usher into Utica, protect it from arson and even help staff a world-class ambulance service. Given these variables, and the nationally recognized arson epidemic Utica once fought, it makes sense to allow them to retain the full value of their 2010 SAFER award during this period of fiscal distress.

Again, I am requesting that your agency work hand and glove with the City of Utica to craft a plan that allows for the unquestionable retention of their 2010 SAFER award, despite a potential impact on four SAFER funded positions. While the DHS is not known for making exceptions to this no lay-off rule, a city that was once plagued by arson - one we don't want back in danger - is definitely a good exception to make. We must do all we can to ensure this money stays on the ground in Utica, so we can avoid even more firefighter layoffs and so we can keep the public safe.

Thank you for your consideration of this very important request. Please contact me at 202-224-6542 if you have any questions or need additional information.

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