Kudos to Hernando County commissioners for venturing into a public safety debate with their eyes wide open. Tuesday, commissioners agreed unanimously to apply for a $1.4 million federal grant to add 12 firefighters, but not without a lengthy debate over cutting fire department overhead and a commission consensus to forgo asking residents to pay higher fire fees to absorb the salary costs in 2013.
Discussion of an adjusted fire fee shouldn't be excluded entirely, but the commission was correct not to commit to a blank check at the outset. Too frequently, local governments can't resist the temptation of taking federal money while putting off the difficult task of making ends meet once the grant expires.
That was a common occurrence when federal Community-Oriented Police dollars began flowing to local law enforcement departments in the 1990s. In the Pasco County seat of Dade City, for instance, the department used federal dollars to hire five community-oriented police officers then had to cut eight jobs, including three officers, a few years later to close a $400,000 deficit.
In Hernando, the issue is a federal grant to hire a dozen firefighters, bringing each of the county's fire trucks up to three-person crews. Currently, half of the county's eight trucks operate with just two firefighters each, a staffing level considered substandard by national guidelines and potentially hazardous to the firefighters. The $1.4 million, three-year grant covers two years' worth of salary and benefits for the 12 firefighters and mandates the county to absorb the $717,000 cost in its entirety in 2013.
Fire Chief Mike Nickerson's suggestion of a 7.6 percent increase in the county's fire fee to cover future costs drew no commission support, in part, because the unionized fire department largely has escaped layoffs, salary cuts, furloughs and multiyear wage freezes that have become standard operating procedure for the rest of the county staff.
The commission eventually agreed to apply for the grant after learning it is not obligated to accept the money if the county administration cannot identify corresponding savings to cover the future personnel costs. The commission's prudence is noteworthy, but the focus must be on public safety.
We're not certain the county can enhance its fire department's minimum staffing levels entirely through management attrition and other cuts, nor is it wise to simply exhaust reserve accounts. Even without the cost of a dozen new firefighters, county projections call for consideration of a higher fire fee by 2014 when expenses could surpass annual revenues and reserves.
The commission should remain flexible. Its own 2007 fire master plan called for minimum staffing of three-person crews per truck. Failing to work toward that goal — even if it requires some new revenue — means the commission will have picked political safety over public safety.