Grant prompts debates, veto pledge

By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers

TAYLOR — Longtime tensions surrounding the city fire department, city council and Mayor Jeffrey Lamarand came to a head Tuesday before a standing-room-only crowd.

On the table at the council’s regular meeting was an $8 million grant that could help restore public safety staffing stacked against the city’s inability to meet expenses based on current revenue.

City council approved a resolution urging Lamarand to accept a two-year Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant from the Federal Emergency Management Administration. The resolution was approved 5-1, with Council Chairwoman Cheryl Burke dissenting. Council supporters including John Delo and Jacklyn Molner told the audience that Lamarand was not representing the needs of the city.

“We need a fire department that is fully functional,” Delo said. “We have, I believe, the wants, needs and desires of 63,000 people being held up by one man. Is that democracy? Is that Government 101?”

Lamarand said that the problem, “passing the buck down two more years,” was created by long-serving elected officials such as Delo.

The resolution likely was moot, as Lamarand said he planned to veto the request; accepting the grant would be counter-productive to the city’s long-term financial stability, he said.

“When the grant runs out, we’ll owe this money,” Lamarand said. “We can’t sustain our current cost structure.”

If accepted, the city could be responsible for up to $1 million in benefits for the firefighters whose salaries would be covered by the grant.

Lamarand’s position was supported both by Burke and City Attorney John Martin, who said the resolution violated the charter in attempting to override the mayor’s authority as administrator.

Burke said it wasn’t as simple as respecting the wishes of a population.

“I want more firefighters, and two more open fire houses and more police officers,” Burke said. “That’s what I want. I can’t tell you how we’re going to pay for it.”

Layoffs from the Fire Department joined dozens of other job losses at City Hall last year. The current roster of 21 firefighters and three administrators is a fraction of its January 2011 strength of 61. Fire Chief Bob Tompos spearheaded the application for grant funds, an attempt to restore many if not all of the positions, with an eye toward reopening two stations that were shuttered last year.

Much has changed since Tompos prepared the application: The city has since outsourced emergency medical response services, and submitted to the state a debt-reduction plan — a balanced budget to avoid state financial emergency management takeover — that calls for an additional five layoffs from the fire department on July 1.

Lamarand said that accepting the grant would have left the city legally liable for costs that would exceed the budget allowances as accepted by the state.

If Lamarand vetoed the resolution and declines the grant — the acceptance of which has a July 8 deadline — council members indicated they would either attempt to override the veto or consider seeking legal action against the mayor.

(James Mitchell can be reached at jmitchell@bewickpublications.com.)

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