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Police, fire get boost via new stimulus funds

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / December 17, 2009

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Several communities south of Boston are getting a short-term boost in meeting their public safety staffing needs thanks to an infusion recently of federal stimulus money.

Doled out by the state, the funds will pay for hiring, rehiring, and retaining local police officers and firefighters, and to help departments meet overtime and per diem costs related to maintaining shift levels.

“It’s going to make a big difference,’’ Plymouth Fire Chief G. Edward Bradley said of the $174,225 his department is receiving.

Bradley said he will use the money to augment his overtime budget, ensuring that the town’s seven engine and two ladder trucks are staffed at all times. Since July 1, the two ladder trucks have been staffed periodically due to budget constraints. By using the money for overtime, he can put it to work right away, Bradley said, noting that the alternative of hiring and training new firefighters can take months.

Statewide, 35 police departments were awarded $6.2 million, and 85 fire departments got $11.6 million. South of Boston, five police departments will receive a combined $649,656, while 12 fire departments have been awarded $1.1 million.

The police awards come from the US Justice Department’s Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program. They follow $15.8 million the federal agency awarded through that program to 147 Massachusetts cities and towns earlier this year, and $28.9 million in stimulus money the state awarded in August to 13 communities from the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services program.

Police departments receiving money in this region are Bridgewater, Kingston, Lakeville, Raynham, and Wareham. The fire money, which comes from discretionary funds Governor Deval Patrick set aside for the purpose goes to Abington, Braintree, Brockton, Carver, Kingston, Lakeville, Mansfield, Marshfield, Middleborough, Plymouth, Rockland, and Stoughton.

Fire staffing funds have also been made available for Walpole, but the state Executive Office of Public Safety is awaiting a proposal from the town on how the money would be spent to determine whether it will be awarded funding, said the agency’s spokesman, Terrel Harris.

In a previous first round of the fire funding, the administration in October awarded a combined $8.3 million to 15 fire departments, including Bridgewater, Easton, Hull, Kingston, Lakeville, Marshfield, Quincy, and Walpole.

The Lakeville Police Department plans to use the $186,659 it was awarded to bring back next month two of the five police officers who were laid off this past July 1 due to budget cuts, said police Lieutenant Frank Alvilhiera. It also plans to fill one of two civilian dispatcher positions.

“It’s definitely very helpful,’’ Alvilhiera said. The addition of the officers will ensure the department has two officers on duty at all times, he said. Prior to July 1, as many as four officers would be assigned to a shift. But since then, the department at times has been down to one officer on duty.

Having two officers on the road at all times “will enable us to follow up on calls that since July 1 we couldn’t follow up on,’’ Alvilhiera said. And adding a dispatcher will relieve officers from having to answer incoming calls, freeing up time for their regular duties.

Rockland Fire Chief Robert DiPoli said he is delighted by his department’s $186,875 award - even though it falls well short of the $350,000 the town had requested.

DiPoli is still finalizing plans for using the money. But he said a portion of it will be put toward overtime to ensure the department is able to maintain the five-person-per-shift staffing level he regards as the bare minimum needed for a town Rockland’s size. Currently, staffing falls below that level on certain shifts due to budget constraints, he said.

He said he would separately apply funds to the overtime account to allow the department to add a sixth firefighter to selected shifts on which there is an anticipated need for extra personnel. And he would like to use part of the money to fill one or more vacant firefighter positions. But noting that the stimulus money will run out during fiscal 2011, he said he would only hire new staff if he determines his fiscal 2011 budget is sufficient to sustain those jobs through the end of that year.

“I just want to be very prudent,’’ DiPoli said, noting that he does not want to hire and train an employee “and then tell them at the end of the grant program that I don’t have the money to keep them on.’’

In Brockton, Fire Chief Kenneth F. Galligan said he plans to apply all of his department’s $340,624 award toward overtime costs. He said he had originally hoped to hire four firefighters and add to the overtime budget, but dropped the hiring plan when the grant came in below the department’s original $850,000 request.

Galligan said the overtime boost will help, however, since it will allow him to keep three of the city’s ladder trucks in service at all times. This past summer, there were frequent “brown-out’’ periods when one of the trucks had to go out of service due to staffing shortages resulting from vacations and the loss of 27 firefighter positions through attrition over the last several budget cycles. Without the stimulus money, more brownouts would be likely this summer, he said.

Although pleased with the money, Galligan called it a “Band-Aid’’ solution to the department’s staffing needs.

“When the money’s gone, we’ll probably be facing again what we have been facing,’’ he said. “The hope is that, by that time, the economy turns itself around and maybe there will be some other funding sources to make up for this.’’

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.