Massachusetts Grant Money a 'Mixed Blessing'

Updated: 02-23-2007 08:59:38 AM

Berkshire Eagle

CHESHIRE, MASS. -- The town and the volunteer fire department remain at odds over a $660,000 federal grant that will be used to help recruitment and sponsor fire prevention programs, but that cannot be used for a badly needed truck.

On Tuesday, the Selectmen canceled a meeting scheduled for tonight to discuss the future of the grant and said they are looking into ways to roll that funding into air packs and a new rescue truck.

According to Selectmen Chairman Carol Francesconi, the four-year Homeland Security grant -- to be shared with the neighboring town of Savoy's volunteer fire department -- is a "mixed blessing" because the funds will not be used where they are needed most.

"We really could have used money for equipment," she said.

Cheshire and Savoy were awarded the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant in January. The $94 million program is administered by the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and this grant is the largest awarded in the state this round -- surpassing the $621,000 to Fall River. The town has six months to accept or refuse the grant.

Corey McGrath, who serves on both the Cheshire and Savoy fire departments, helped put together the grant applications with Cheshire Fire Chief George Sweet and Savoy Fire Chief Kevin Krutiak. Together, they took advantage of the services of a New York-based grant writer, Samuel Doncel.

McGrath said the grant will be used for an important purpose, as firefighter recruitment and training remain a difficult problem for the departments. Both are well below their allowed recruitment levels because of a familiar mix of people working longer hours and the substantial time commitment volunteer firefighters must make.

Aware of equipment needs

And he said that, as a firefighter, he is well aware of how badly the Cheshire department needs new equipment. The air packs are so old that spare parts cannot be found for them, and the current rescue truck "is on borrowed time." He said the department has actively applied for equipment grants.

Considering all avenues

"No one should limit themselves to one particular grant," he said. "If you can go for it, you should."

The SAFER grant includes much more than just marketing and advertising for recruitment. It includes a laptop computer, a liquid crystal display projector for each department to use for training and outreach purposes, new uniforms, college scholarships for junior firefighters and funds to cover travel expenses.

But town officials have stressed that, although it may appear they are looking a gift horse in the mouth, they fear that such a large amount may jeopardize their ability to win a more vital equipment grant in the future. They are adamant about the need to follow the state's rigorous procurement laws.

Francesconi said that she and the rest of the Selectmen "did not know the grant was being applied for" in the first place.

To Francesconi, the lack of dialogue between Cheshire's board -- which is the only town entity allowed to enter into contracts -- and the Fire Department is an "extreme miscommunication." She said the funds were applied for without consultation with the town or Fire Committee.

The next move for Cheshire and Savoy, she said, would be the formation of a committee -- composed of the towns' Select Boards, fire departments and town administrators -- that would be responsible for "taking out individual pieces of the grant."

The committee will be formed within the next month, she said.

There also is the matter of the grant administrator. Doncel claims that the chiefs agreed to a fee of 10 percent of the funds, which would amount to $33,000 from each town. However, he later agreed to waive much of the fee in exchange for being named grant administrator, a position that would include a $90,000 salary paid from the grant itself.

The grant's procurement laws state that "any expenditure over $25,000 has to go out to bid," Francesconi said, which means competitive bidding is a requirement for almost every subcontract funded by the grant.

"We can't just give the jobs to whoever (we want)," she said.

Francesconi stressed that, although the matter has caused some "confusion," the grant has not caused any bad blood between Cheshire's government and its fire department.

"We're a small town," she explained. "Extra money to the fire department is always a good thing."

In the meantime, Cheshire's Selectmen have not given up on securing funds for a fire truck.

"Just because they said no the first time doesn't mean we won't try again," Francesconi said.

Material from the North Adams Transcript was used in this report.