Pushing Away Public Safety

HACKENSACK –  Josh Gottheimer loves to talk about “clawing” money back from Washington to help towns in his 5th District.

It’s not always easy. The competition is tough and New Jersey traditionally has lagged behind other states in getting federal aid.

One thing Gottheimer probably didn’t count on was towns rejecting money that is available.

But that is precisely what seems to be happening in this city, the seat of Bergen County government.

At issue is a $2.4 million fire safety grant. In the bureaucratic language of government, this is a SAFER grant for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response.

The congressman says the grant will allow the city to hire 12 firefighters, train them, and pay their salaries and benefits for three years. Sounds like a good deal.

Maybe not.

The city says it won’t accept the money by a Nov. 19 (Saturday) deadline to do so.

Gottheimer has responded with the energy one normally sees in a political campaign – like the one he just successfully waged to win re-election last week.

Gottheimer rallied a few days ago with city firefighters, union officials and other supporters to urge the city to accept the grant. He also has dispatched regular press releases about the dispute.

“The City Council plans to reject the federal grant we all fought for and resubmit it for a lower number of firefighters,” the congressman says. “This is a very risky decision and could result in no new firefighters being hired using federal funds – hurting families safety and taxpayers’ pocketbooks.”

Gottheimer is even giving the issue some national attention. The congressman spoke Thursday afternoon on the House floor, urging Hackensack to accept the grant.

Hackensack is a pretty compact place with 46,000 people and a number of high-risers. Fire safety, you would think, would be a priority.

A spokesman for the city says it definitely is, adding that the issue is “more complex” than it seems.

Spokesman Nick Bond added, “The grant provides cities with funding for firefighters salaries and benefits for three years, which is obviously a great thing, but then the city has to put money in the budget to keep them on board (which would be millions of dollars).

Hackensack is currently in the process of applying for the grant to hire five firefighters, which will ensure the Fire Department continues to be appropriately staffed without putting additional burden on taxpayers.”

Fair point, but it’s still quite unusual for a city to push away help when it comes to public safety.

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