City, county officials clash over hazmat grant

The county's return of a State Homeland Security grant earmarked for the Hot Springs Fire Department will affect the southwest part of the state's response to hazardous materials emergencies, the city said Friday in a news release.

County Judge Rick Davis notified the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management last month that he was returning a $253,951 grant awarded in fiscal year 2016 to the fire department's Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction response team.

The grant terms require the county to pay for the equipment and training before the state will reimburse it. It allocated the funding for the fiscal year 2014 and 2015 grants from the part of its General Fund that pays the county share of district court and animal service expenses and the county's $75,000 contract with the Hot Springs Metro Partnership.

The Garland County Finance Committee tabled the pass-through funding in November, citing the county's responsibility to disburse all the funds before it gets reimbursed. Davis reiterated the strain the allocation puts on county finances in a news release he issued Friday.

"Even though the county matching funds are 'pass through' and will eventually be reimbursed, $250,000 from a half-cent sales tax budget is hard to commit for over a year before reimbursement when that money is desperately needed for other pressing purposes that serve all the people of the county," Davis said in the release. "I'm told it takes almost a year for the county to be reimbursed."

City Manager David Frasher took exception to the committee withholding the funds.

"I don't understand that," he said in November. "I've been in this business for 34 years, and I've never seen that. It's pass-through dollars with no consequence to the county for passing it. How does it cost them anything? It's a 100 percent pass through of federally sourced funding."

Fire Chief Ed Davis said in the city's news release that the grant enables the fire department to operate the only HMWMD response team in southwest Arkansas. The Joint Hazardous Assessment Team within the larger response team is one of six in the state, he said, comprising a law enforcement officer, a HMWMD technician from the fire department and a member of the Arkansas National Guard Civil Support Team.

The JHAT team is deployed at large events, such as the Arkansas Derby.

"JHAT teams perform an important security function, observing the attendees and sampling the atmosphere for the presence of hazardous substances," Chief Davis said in the release. "In the event of an act of terrorism at one of these large gatherings, JHAT teams would act as the first line of defense for attending patrons."

Judge Davis' notification letter to ADEM cited the city's removal of $40,000 from its 2017 budget that had gone to the Garland County Department of Emergency Management in previous budget cycles. Department Director Bo Robertson said Friday that the funding cut would have made it difficult to administer the purchasing, inventorying and tracking of the specialized equipment the grant funds provide.

Robertson said his office made the fire department aware of the grant and has written it and applied for it on behalf of the fire department the last three years. He said his office is also responsible for keeping up with equipment purchased under the grant for three years after the grant closes.

"They do audits on this stuff," he said. "State and Homeland Security representatives check your books to see what you've purchased. They want to know where the equipment is, and they want to see it. We have to keep up with every single aspect of that."

Chief Davis said that, without the funds, the fire department won't be able to purchase $203,950 of protective and recognition equipment used in the containment of chemical releases.

"(Returning the grant) has restricted future development of the Hot Springs Fire Department's HMWMD capabilities," he said in the release. " ... As a result, Hot Springs firefighters will respond to potential HMWMD environments with lesser-quality equipment and without state funding."

Robertson said the fire department still has about $400,000 of equipment his office purchased and assigned to it, explaining that the county owns the equipment despite it being assigned to the fire department.

Judge Davis' letter to ADEM noted the city's "consistent, ongoing unwillingness" to cooperate on improving public safety, including reports he's received that the fire department wasn't fulfilling grant responsibilities that require it to train volunteer fire departments in hazardous material containment and decontamination.

The fire department provided a list of nine hazardous material training sessions it held in 2015 and 2016, including two paid for by State Homeland Security grant funds. None of the county's volunteer departments attended the HazMat Chemistry course in April, according to the list. The Piney Fire Department was the only volunteer association at the Propane IQ and Above the Line/Below the Line HazMat IQ course in July.

The fire department's list shows that the Lake Hamilton Fire Department attended four training sessions, none of which were paid for from the grant program. The fire department said it didn't have permission from state officials to hold more training sessions for volunteer associations.

Judge Davis said the county funded the $78,000 portion of the grant shared by the sheriff's department's Tactical Response Team and the police department's SWAT team. Robertson said his office is also responsible for all aspects of that portion of the grant.

"It's my understanding that all law enforcement agencies are working well together, and that the grant benefited all," Judge Davis said in his news release.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, $402 million in State Homeland Security Grants were available in fiscal year 2016.

Local on 01/21/2017

Upcoming Events