AUGUSTA, Maine — Law enforcement agencies and first responders across the state are bracing for what they expect will be significant cuts in federal grants, a fear members of the state’s congressional delegation say is warranted.
“What we are hearing is that most of the federal grants will be cut by up to 40 percent,” said Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police. “That is absolutely devastating and not just to state entities but to local communities as well.”
He said grants ranging from speed enforcement to the grants the Maine Emergency Management Agency receive for equipment and training of first responders are on the chopping block. He said public safety agencies throughout the state have used federal grants for a wide range of needs, from training on how to handle hazardous material spills to replacing equipment and supplies for specialized gear like breathing apparatus.
“The states, and not just Maine, are going potentially be in the same place they were pre-9/11,” Williams said.
Caribou Police Chief Mike Gahagan, president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said the expected cuts will reduce the ability of police agencies to focus on problem areas. He said grants for speed enforcement and drunk-driving patrols have allowed police agencies to focus the additional resources without reducing other enforcement activities.
“There is training we have to do and we find the resources to pay for that training,” he said. “We do a lot of online training and there is a lot of cooperation between departments on hands on training like on using a taser and firearms practice.”
Gahagan said that since the 9/11 attacks, there has been more training recommended and in some cases required by federal agencies with such activities as dealing with suspected terrorist activity and dealing with possible hazardous chemical spills, or weapons of mass destruction.
“Both the state and federal governments want local law enforcement to do more as part of homeland security,” said Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross, president of the Maine Sheriffs Association. “Some of the grants have been for that and if they cut the grants, we have no money to pay for that. The property taxpayers can only be asked to do so much.”
He said a reduction in funding by the federal government will not be picked up by most sheriffs and local police because there is no extra money available. He said there have been a lot of cooperative efforts by state and local law enforcement to make best use of the federal grants for special enforcement details like drunk driving.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee and she says the possibility of large cuts in the various public safety programs is very real.
“Unfortunately, their fears are absolutely warranted,” she said. “The current law would allow these cuts to go into effect, so they are going to go into effect unless the Congress and the president act to block them.”
Collins said she hopes Congress will act to spell out program cuts through the regular appropriations bills or through any continuing spending resolution. She said to reduce the budget deficit will mean cuts to a lot of spending programs but they should be targeted and balanced and not simply made across the board.
“We should not be making the mindless across the board cuts that are required under the sequestration language,” Collins said. She said there are many programs for law enforcement and first responders that would have to be reduced as part of reducing the deficit, but Congress should set priorities among the programs and not just “cut with a meat ax.”
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, is also concerned Congress will allow the across-the-board cuts that would hurt a broad range of programs, and not just those that help local police and first responders.
“This has become a really critical funding area for a lot of small communities in Maine,” she said. “Firefighters, public safety people, just don’t have enough money in their local budgets anymore depend on these federal grants.”
Pingree said that since the 9/11 attacks, the federal government has asked local police and other first responders to do more toward homeland security, and the grant programs have always been there to help local agencies meet their new roles.
“It would just be wrong to take away that help to the communities,” she said.