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Federal grants cut both ways

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By The Staff

By DAMON LAWRENCE

dlawrence@roanecounty.com

Roane County Commissioner Ron Berry was taken aback when two U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant resolutions appeared on the budget committee agenda in December.

“Obviously, Homeland Security has more money than they know what to do with,” he said.

Homeland Security had a budget of $55.3 billion for fiscal year 2010.

Despite a recession and a huge federal deficit, the agency wants even more money for fiscal year 2011, unveiling a budget request of $56.3 billion earlier this year.

Howie Rose, director of the Roane County Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said he’d like to see Congress approve the agency’s budget request, which includes $4 billion for grant programs.

“When people dial 911, they expect a service, and without grants we wouldn’t be able to provide service, or it would be limited,” Rose said. “It wouldn’t be what it is now.”

Locals reap benefits

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is a branch of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Through FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, billions of dollars have been allocated to fire departments across the country for resources, such as equipment, vehicles and protective gear.

West Roane County Volunteer Fire Department Chief Charlie Redwine has nothing but praise  for the AFG program.

“That’s been one of the best projects I’ve seen government do, as far as being able to see where the money is going,” Redwine said.

West Roane County received two grants this year totaling $258,315. Redwine said one of the grants will be used to purchase a much- needed pumper truck.

According to the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Web site, West Roane County has received $503,279 in grants through the program since 2003.

Without that kind of federal assistance, Redwine said his department would be struggling.

“We’d be lucky to be operating,” he said. “Most of our equipment comes from grant funding.”

Other area volunteer departments, including Blair, East Roane County and South Roane County, have benefitted from the AFG program.

In all, more than $1 million of AFG funding has flowed into Roane County since 2003.

“I think all your congressmen and everybody realized they needed to help us,” Redwine said. “We don’t make as many calls as the big departments, but the job is just as dangerous.”

Good thing to do

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Pall Mall, serves on both the Science and Technology Committee and House Appropriations Committee.

Davis said members of Congress who represent rural areas have fought to get their districts a share of the federal grant money.

“I have utmost respect for the New York Fire Department, but I’ll tell you something,” Davis said. “Around here in Roane County, there’s a dire need to be sure that we have the right kind of equipment because we go to the same emergencies that they do in New York City.”

When asked if the federal government should allocate billions in grants in the face of a huge deficit, Davis said it’s something both political parties agree is the right thing to do for America.

“When we talk about federal government, we’re talking about ‘We, the people,’” Davis said. “There are certain things that we do collectively in this nation, and that’s for us to collectively do what we think is best for our people. This is one decision that has been made by Republicans and Democrats, that it’s a good thing to do.”

Rose said he’s more concerned about having good equipment that can save lives than a federal deficit.

“It’s about people’s priorities,” he said. “If they want government to be able to respond and help them when a disaster or an emergency strikes, then those kind of grants are important.”

Debt continues to grow

So while Homeland Security has billions of dollars to give out, the national debt continues to grow. A recent CBS News story said the debt stands at $12.6 trillion, compared to $10.6 trillion when President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

“You know, we used to say that we were spending our grandkids’ money,” Roane County Republican Party Chairman Bruce Cantrell said. “Now we’re spending our great-grandkids’ money.”

Davis countered that when taxes were cut during the George W. Bush administration, spending exploded under the Republican-controlled Congress.

“During the Bush administration, six of those years Republicans had control, we increased the national debt during his administration by over $5 trillion,” Davis said. “It was brought about by spending, and it certainly was not brought about by cutting spending. It was by dramatically increasing spending.”

Davis, who is up for re-election this year, said the way to reduce the debt is elect Democrats instead of Republicans.

Cantrell said Republicans did some “crazy things” with spending when they were in charge, but disagreed with Davis’ assessment.

“We got thrown out and the Democrats took control because we did dumb things with the budget,” Cantrell said. “But what we did with the budget and running up the debt doesn’t even hold a candle to what Lincoln Davis, the Democrat Congress and Obama is doing today. For him to come back to the 4th District and say elect us, and we’ll take care of it, that’s laughable.”