The city of Saginaw, Mich., has an arson problem.
The former manufacturing hub is filled with vacant properties, the result of losing 48 percent of its residents over a 50-year period, as jobs melted away and more homes went into foreclosure. So people burn down those abandoned buildings, keeping the 50-person local fire department busier than it ought to be for a town of 50,000 people.
“We live in a distressed community,” says Fire Capt. Thomas Raines. “Our demand for services is a little larger.”
Now, 10 of those firefighters might lose their jobs, if a stalemate over Department of Homeland Security funding doesn’t get resolved by next Friday. Republicans in Washington are threatening to hold up funding for the Department of Homeland Security in order to prevent President Obama from implementing an executive order that would shield undocumented immigrants from deportation.
A loss in DHS funding would ripple far beyond Washington, into towns like Saginaw that depend heavily on federal grants to support basic services. The department funds about 1,800 firefighter positions nationwide that would quickly disappear if DHS shut down, as well as security in the New York City rail system, communications equipment in Los Angeles, bomb-sniffing dogs in Massachusetts, and hundreds of other odds and ends that DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson didn’t have space to highlight in his appeal to Congress last week for a normal new appropriation.
"Every governor, mayor, police chief, county sheriff, emergency manager and fire chief should care about this,” Johnson wrote.
The bulk of the agency’s personnel are deemed “essential” to national security and would have to keep working. But administrative employees — including those who process the agency’s grants to local governments — would be furloughed when funding runs out on Feb. 27. Even with a short-term measure to keep DHS running for a few weeks or months, that could torpedo the FY 2015 round of aid to local governments.
Towns like Saginaw are already under pressure, with atrophied tax bases that make it hard to pay for public goods. In early 2013, the city of Saginaw found itself facing the prospect of closing half its fire stations and laying off 15 firefighters — plus even more police officers — to make up for a $3.2 million budget shortfall.
In June 2013, however, salvation arrived: A $2.3 million “SAFER” grant from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which would save the 15 positions for two years. It came from a $670-million-a-year program that Congress created in 2005 to help supplement staffing, training and equipment needs at local fire departments. In the depths of the recession, when few towns could meet the grant requirement that keep locally-funded staffing levels steady, the criteria changed to include preserving jobs that otherwise would have been cut because of fiscal difficulties.
“We saw the SAFER grant as an opportunity to at least maintain our level of service,” says Raines, who is also president of the local firefighters union. “The SAFER grant was a godsend to a community like ours.”
Over the past two years, the city has tweaked its budget to pay for a few more of those positions on its own, but it still wants federal help for a few of them. And now with the stand-off over DHS funding, that assistance is under threat.
Overall, such budgetary brinkmanship is a bigger problem for states and municipalities than it used to be. According to the Census Bureau, federal grants-in-aid have increased both in absolute terms and as a percentage of local government revenues from 1990 to 2011, the latest year for which figures are available. Cities operate on tight timeframes, and often don’t have the cash reserves to float them through a delay in anticipated funding.
In Saginaw, the looming question of whether fire positions will be funded has already had an effect.
“We’ve had people looking for other jobs, and we’ve had some people leave because of the uncertainty,” Raines says. The most recently hired firefighters would be the first back out the door in the event of layoffs, because of the union’s seniority rules. For Raines, that’s frustrating.
“At the end of the day, what we expect is that we elect people to go to Washington to do their jobs,” he says. “Weather doesn’t stop us, nothing stops us, and we expect them to do the same.”