Windfall or wasteful, where's the line?

Posted: Tuesday, January 04, 2005

It may be that keeping firefighters and ambulance crews in good physical shape makes sense and could lessen lost-time figures.

But at what point does preventing emergency personnel from being portly become pork barrel spending?

A cursory Internet search of commercial multi-station gym manufacturers - including such brands as Nautilus, Bowflex, Nordic Track, Gym Tuff, and Pro-Fitness, to name a few out of scores available - all offered multi-station commercial equipment under $6,000, and often well under. There are companies marketing fancier multi-gyms at prices over $10,000, but even at $10,000 per station, that's only $40,000 to outfit all four Central Emergency Services stations that are slated to receive the equipment with funding from a U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant. The federal grant is for $106,852 and requires a local match of $11,872, for a total expenditure of $118,724. CES plans to use $80,000 on equipment and the rest to pay for training CES personnel as fitness trainers and to provide for evaluation of the program and its participants.

Home workout gyms, which generally cost less than commercial level equipment, might suffice for the limited number of eligible people likely to use the proposed fire hall gyms at any one time.

So what would CES buy for $80,000, and what would the service area do with the extra money if fire hall gyms could be outfitted for far less?

Acting CES Fire Chief Steve O'Connor said CES was investigating prices, but hadn't yet determined what kind of equipment would be bought. As for money left over, he said they'd "cross that bridge" if they come to it.

While fire hall gyms would certainly be convenient for men and women on shift, there are other options for exercise available on the central peninsula, including access to gymnasiums through community schools programs, swimming pools and even weight-training equipment at area high schools. Any fees are minimal.

Beyond that, there are commercial gyms doing business on the peninsula. The owner of one said he would be amenable to negotiating a discount rate for groups.

O'Connor said he thought CES had looked at commercial gyms but said he believed there were no "big-group" discounts available.

Making equipment available on the job seemed a good idea.

"We viewed the grant as a chance to make a long-term commitment to the fitness and wellness of our employees," he said. "I know that many government entities have such programs for their employees particularly in public safety."

"There are plenty of ways to get in shape," said assembly member Ron Long of Seward. "The trouble is, we all forgot those when we graduated from high school."

The Department of Homeland Security has a much broader range of responsibility than making sure firefighters can pump iron, and has been embroiled in an ongoing national debate centering on how department appropriations are being spent. Critics lamented intrusive procedures at airport check-in lines while baggage destined for the cargo holds isn't X-rayed, or the fact that three years after 9-11, the vast majority of containers arriving at major seaports come ashore uninspected.

"That's a farce," Long said.

Roughly $2 billion of the $3.2 billion in federal grant money now available to fire and public safety programs around the country were already in the pipeline before the department took over FEMA, Long said. The irony, he added, is that "there was a 66 percent chance" the CES grant would eventually have been covered anyway.

The federal Homeland Security money has created a feeding frenzy with municipalities eager to get a piece of the pie. Very often that money funds worthwhile projects. Whether the $119,000 earmarked for CES employee strength training is excessive is a subjective matter. Long said no blame should be cast at CES or borough officials. The "real responsibility" for oversight, Long said, lies with the Bush administration and Congress.

"That's where the failure is, to me," he said.

Assembly member Pete Sprague of Soldotna said he wasn't ready to comment whether the grant was proper but acknowledged that there were "really good questions" about the issue that should be discussed.

Assembly member Milli Martin of Diamond Ridge said she, too, was curious about aspects of the grant and how it would be spent. She said she knows that Anchor Point Fire and Emergency Medical Service Area volunteers have access to equipment elsewhere within their service area, but no specific program mandating use.

Still, it should be "a given" that public safety personnel stay in shape, she said, adding she would have more questions Tuesday night.

O'Connor said there were no plans currently for making use of the equipment mandatory if it is installed. However, the ordinance does include a reference to "periodic evaluations."

The assembly may have little choice but to do what it normally does when asked to pass an ordinance accepting and appropriating a federal grant. Smile, take the money and run. A principled stand against wasteful spending - if this is what the grant is - might be futile.

"What if we all got up (as an assembly) and said, 'This is where we draw the line,'" Long said. "The net effect would be that the $106,000 would go to someone else. I doubt it would produce a groundswell among municipalities nationwide to say 'no' just because the money could be put to better use."

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