News

First responders meet Murray to request federal support

By CHARLIE BERMANT

Kitsap County writer

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray met with a small group of local fire, police, judicial and other first-responder personnel Thursday, hearing their pleas for increased federal support to do their jobs properly.

“Our first responders are all on call to do an enormous magnitude of a job for everyday citizens,” she said after the meeting. “I am deeply concerned that we are going to get budget cuts from the White House that reduce support for critical infrastructure, support for training and support for grants. What I heard today will help me make the case that we need to do the best we can and be a better Federal partner to local agencies.”

Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management Director Phyllis Mann, who hosted the meeting, said she had no expectations about the meeting’s ability to yield concrete results.

“This was for information only,” Mann said. “It was so she would know what she needs to help us get (U.S. Department of) Homeland Security dollars and grant dollars. We have to get money out of the federal government. We can’t do half of the stuff we do without it.”

Mann believes Murray will be able to shake loose the funding, saying the senator “is a very powerful advocate for local government.”

During the meeting, Murray heard how first-responder agencies are being squeezed by budget cuts, asked to do more work with no increase in personnel and relying on grants that are suddenly, inexplicably, canceled.

Several participants said success with a grant-funded program makes the agency no longer qualified for the specific grants, thus they do not always publicize the success.

Kitsap County Superior Court Judge Jay Roof told Murray of the funding loss that has left the Kitsap County Drug Court without a probation officer. He asked Murray to help restore the funds, which were awarded to the county but never collected.

“When I talk about budgets with the county commissioners, I can tell them how Drug Court has saved us money by decreasing jail occupancy and decreasing felony filings,” Roof said. “But I can’t ring that money on their cash register.”

Because prevention saves money, it is not as quantifiable as a grant that supports an equipment purchase. As a result, Drug Court is subject to budget elimination.

While many prevention efforts are grant funded, the matching requirement often makes it difficult to acquire. Many grants are paid off gradually, but others that require cash up front are unfair to the grantee, according to statements.

“When we have to come up with cold, hard cash, we miss some opportunities,” said Bainbridge Island Police Chief Matt Haney.

Grants for equipment do not include maintenance, so Murray suggested that maintenance costs could count as matching funds.

Mann said that first responders require in-service training, but these efforts aren’t fully supported. Recently, she had to confront a federal agency with an ultimatum, if the agency did not provide for overtime for the trainees DEM would not participate.

She got the funds, but this is a recurring problem — small departments cannot allocate on-duty personnel for training because it does not allow them to perform their required duties.

“We got a nice boat through a grant,” Haney said. “But we don’t have the personnel to run it.”

A similar situation was discussed by North Kitsap Fire Department Assistant Chief Wayne Kier who said the decreased presence of the Coast Guard has forced the fire departments to answer marine calls.

“Someone has to take up the slack,” Kier said. “But it can be a real burden to cross-train fire personnel to work in marine environments.” 

At issue is money from the Homeland Security Department, which was awarded after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and may now be withdrawn.

No terrorists have been apprehended as a result of this money and it is considered to be no longer necessary. Mann, however, says the funds have already helped the community in other ways and need to stay in place.

“They haven’t caught any terrorists, so they now think it is ineffectual,” Mann said. “But the money has helped us to fight a lot of hazards and has become very important. We will catch a terrorist sooner or later and they will fall into one of these traps.”

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