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NH police departments finding less personnel funding as federal COPS dollars dry up

Union Leader Correspondent

July 31. 2012 10:46PM

Keene's LENCO BearCat Special Missions armored vehicle. (COURTESY)

New Hampshire police departments that have tapped into national grant programs to help pay for personnel and equipment that town budgets don't cover are finding less support as federal agencies rein in spending.

Those who've opposed the use of these grants would argue that's for the best.

The U.S. Dept. of Justice Community Orientated Policing Services (COPS) grants, which cover most of the cost of hiring new police officers, have been cut by more than 50 percent. And grants from the Dept. of Homeland Security that pay for training and equipment such as armored vehicles, surveillance cameras, radios, protective clothing and other types of gear, are also being cut back.

Although police departments get grants from many different agencies, such as the N.H. Highway Safety Agency and N.H. Attorney General's Office, COPS grants have been a major source of funding for departments whose chiefs say they are understaffed.

COPS grants, meant to cover the cost of a new officer for four years, have been a problem for many local departments because they fund only the first three years of salary. Cities and towns must agree to pay for the fourth year on their own.

'I have not applied for a COPS grant for a while because of the requirements,' said Derry Police Chief Edward Garone. 'Derry, like every other community, is facing some serious budget issues. The Town Council has been very good to us, but every year we are asked to cut back.'

Police departments that accept COPS grants are not allowed to reduce staff until the end of the fourth year. Garone and other chiefs say it's impossible to know what the needs of communities and the departments will be four years out, and accepting a COPS grants locks them into staffing levels.

Pelham Police Chief Joseph Roark did pick up a 2011 COPS grant that allowed him to hire an additional officer.

'The grant was a warrant article and the town voted to approve it,' said Roark. 'They understood we needed the additional help.'

Manchester aldermen voted on July 17 to authorize the fire and police departments to hire more officers and firefighters funded through federal grants, against the strong objections of Mayor Ted Gatsas, who argued that the new hires would saddle the city with 'unsustainable' costs when the funding ends.

The aldermen voted to allow the fire department to seek a grant to hire eight firefighters through the SAFER program, administered by the Dept. of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency. The grant covers salaries and benefits for the new firefighters for the next two fiscal years, at an estimated cost of $561,000 and $575,000 in 2013 and 2014. The city would bear the staffing costs of approximately $600,000 in 2015, but it would not be obligated to retain the firefighters beyond that.

Gatsas said, 'Communities across the country are saying no to these grants because they don't know where the money is coming from.'

Manchester aldermen also voted to authorize the police department to use grant money for five new officer positions. City Police Chief David Mara said that the money could be used to pay the salaries of two recently hired officers. The grant would provide $620,000 over three years to the city, while the city would bear costs of approximately $18,000 in 2013, $50,000 in 2014, $50,000 in 2015 and $233,000 in 2016, according to city Finance Director Bill Sanders.

Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur voted against both grants. 'I don't know why people think taking money from Washington is free money. Washington is so broke it makes us in Manchester look like financial geniuses.'

Danville Police Chief Wade Parsons said his department was able to hire a much-needed officer in 2005 due to a grant.

'We were understaffed for awhile, but we received the grant and we were able to maintain that position,' said Parsons.

But in Hampton, Chief Joseph Sullivan had to pass on a 2008 COPS grant that would have funded three new officers.

'We were awarded the grant, but the community decided not to accept it,' said Sullivan. 'There was a staffing deficiency but there wasn't an ability to do it.'

2009 stimulus

Funding for COPS grants received a huge boost in 2009 when the program was bolstered with nearly $1 billion in stimulus funding. In New Hampshire, 12 communities were awarded more than $5 million in grants to hire a total of 24 new officers, 10 of whom were slated for the city of Manchester.

In 2012, Manchester was the only community to receive a COPS grant, totaling $625,000.

Grants for equipment and training from Homeland Security also came with some financial strings attached. According to the state Dept. of Public Safety, the federal government generally picks up 75 to 80 percent of the cost of equipment and training. State, regional and local applicants pick up the remaining costs.

Police departments have received different types of equipment.

'Through Homeland Security, the town was able to get some useful and meaningful equipment,' said Garone. 'It's a very effective means of delivering services.'

The city of Keene made national headlines over controversy following its announcement the city was eligible for a grant, which the City Council would later accept, to pay for a BearCat armored vehicle for its police department.

The Carroll County Sherriff's Office picked up a $75,000 command trailer in 2005, the same year Portsmouth was awarded a $350,000 chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear emergency watercraft.

In the past, Kingston has received $14,000 for night-vision equipment, Manchester was awarded $36,650 for equipment to deal with suspect luggage. Nashua received $285,000 for a command unit and Bow received $51,000 for physical security.

Many police departments, sheriffs' offices and regional groups have picked up communications equipment, computer software and surveillance cameras. And millions of dollars have been invested in training.

Terry Clark, a city councilor in Keene, was part of a group that opposed the acceptance of the grant money for the Keene BearCat.

Clark said that according to a local radio poll, somewhere between 70 to 90 percent of the local population also thought the Bearcat was an unnecessary expense, particularly when the money is needed for so many other things, such as heating that was cut by $3 million last winter.

'We are throwing away our independence and freedom in the name of safety and protection,' said Clark.

Windham Police Chief Gerald Lewis, who serves on the committee that reviews applications for Homeland Security grants, said a lot of the equipment that has been distributed to various departments isn't used very often, but the point is to make sure police have what they need when they need it.

'We have lost perspective on what the intention was,' said Lewis. 'It's a resource that's called on when it's needed. We have tools, weapons, resources that we may not use all that often, but we need to have the expertise and training to use them when we have to.'

Lewis said police will always respond when someone needs help and when they don't have the right equipment, they put themselves in danger.

Garone said, 'We need to protect the protectors.'

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