Pillager might not be on al-Qaida's short list of targets but small Minnesota towns like Pillager routinely receive Assistance to Firefighters Grants from the Department of Homeland Security.
Are these federal grants going to worthwhile projects or is this a case of governmental units chasing after a pot of money that's been designated for use under the popular guise of Homeland Security?
Five fire departments receive Homeland Security funds
Five Brainerd area fire departments will receive federal funding for firefighting and emergency response equipment and training, Rep. Jim Oberstar's office announced late last week.
The five departments and the amount of their federal grants are: Emily Volunteer Fire Department, $36,889; Ironton Fire Department, $40,897; Deerwood Fire Department, $11,520; Mission Township Fire and Rescue, $64,700; and Pierz Fire and Rescue, $118,275.
The funding comes from the Department of Homeland Security's Assistance to Firefighters Grant, which awarded $688,150 to 12 communities in the Eighth District. In 2007, the most current year for which complete statistics are available, communities in the Eighth District received $4.5 million in assistance from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program; $16.6 million in grants were awarded to communities statewide.
Assistance to Firefighters Grants
Fiscal year 2007 (Federal share by congressional district)
First District: 25 grants, $1,680,675.
Second District: 14 grants, $1,143,443.
Third District: 4 grants, $407,838.
Fourth District: 4 grants, $895,488.
Fifth District: 1 grant, $12,291.
Sixth District: 18 grants, $2,105,701.
Seventh District: 70 grants, $5,847,908.
Eighth District: 50 grants, $4,567,048.
"As far as using those dollars for (fighting) terrorists - no, we probably won't see terrorists," Pillager Fire Chief Randy Lee said recently.
Nevertheless, Lee said with local and state revenues unavailable the Pillager Area Fire Protection Association was pleased to receive last November's federal grant paying 95 percent or $154,185 for a new tanker. He hopes the tanker, which will replace a 1984 model, will arrive by October or November.
Lee said he doesn't consider the federal program to be pork.
This fall the Pillager Area Fire Protection Association hopes to receive delivery on a tanker that costs about $200,000. The association will pay for it with the help of a $154,185 grant from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey » Purchase reprints of this photo.
"No, I could find a lot of other places (to cut)," he said. "This did a lot of good for lots and lots of fire departments."
Phil Krinke, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, a nonpartisan taxpayer advocacy group, said communities such as Pillager may well be deserving of funds for a new fire tanker but said that it's difficult to hold elected officials accountable or for people to understand what taxes they're paying and what it's being used for when the federal government is expected to run a $1.2 trillion deficit and the state is expecting a $2.4 billion budget shortfall next year.
"We've got both a federal and a state budget shortfall but who's going to actually pay for it?" he asked. "Maybe the city of Pillager should have a cooperative agreement or look at other alternatives. If they had to pay for it, would they go buy it?
"These are the challenges that elected officials face," Krinke said. "We often say ... families and businesses are in the same situation."
Krinke, who served in the Legislature for 16 years and was a well-known opponent of government waste, said it's natural for people to want to receive more government services but they often forget where the money comes from.
"The government doesn't earn money, it takes it out of the pockets of businesses and citizens within the country," he said. "I think Americans, as a whole, are in the mode that we can receive services and someone else is responsible to pay for it."
Krinke said 1 percent of federal income tax filers pay 40 percent of all federal income taxes.
"How sustainable is that revenue stream?" Krinke asked.
Krinke said he understood that Pillager's tax base is probably not as wealthy as Minnetonka's and that there needs to be a mechanism to level out the system.
"What I'm saying is that each and every one of these programs need to be looked at or analyzed under the current circumstances," Krinke said. "How many fire trucks can we afford to hand out? How many more grants? How many more programs can we continue to sustain? These are challenges."
He said he wasn't arguing that Pillager should not have received the grant but that all units of government should ask the tough questions.
Pillager Fire Chief Randy Lee last week climbed aboard the 1984 tanker that he hopes to replace with the help of a $154,185 Assistance to Firefighters Grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey » Purchase reprints of this photo.
"Is there a way to economize?" he said. "Is there a program that should either be reduced or curtailed, because, by and large, we can't afford it right now."
U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., whose office frequently announces the awarding of such grants, said the grant application procedures have recently been simplified with less linkage to Homeland Security preparedness. He said the expenditures don't constitute wasteful spending.
"They're not applying for grants for terrorism," Oberstar said. "Our terrorism is fire."
Most of the Assistance to Firefighter Grants, he said, go to small fire departments with limited ability to secure funding through a tax base.
A review process for the grant applications has been established with the U.S. Fire Administration. He said the process was professional and thorough.
He said when President-elect Obama submits a budget for Fiscal Year 2010 in May or June Congress will evaluate and look for waste that might be cut.
"We also have to have equity on the tax side," he said. "Tax cuts must be revisited. Those on the upper income end, some of those who were scoundrels and got away with multi-millions."
Oberstar said there also will be safeguards related to the public works projects that he expects will pass Congress this year.
"We have provisions for accountability and transparency, requiring reports every 30 days from all those grant recipients," he said.
John Schadl, Oberstar's communications director, said the congressman supports the Assistance to Firefighters Grants from the Department of Homeland Security as a good use of taxpayers' money.
"First responders are the first line of defense when talking about home security," he said. "We can't only equip large metro areas. If we're going to have homeland security we have to protect everyone's home. To put the burden on local taxpayers of having an enhanced level of preparedness is onerous."
Schadl said that making sure that first responders have proper equipment and training is not frivolous.
MIKE O'ROURKE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5860.
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