PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

October 29, 2012

Port Neches Fire station grant deadline approaches

Mary Meaux
The Port Arthur News

PORT NECHES — FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security have given the City of Port Neches an additional 30 days to accept a federal grant which would pay a majority of the cost to construct a new fire station.

The new deadline, Nov. 23, looms as leaders with the city and Port Neches-Groves ISD negotiate the possible location of the station.

“Up to this point we anticipated we had much longer time frame in which to make a decision but correspondence with (Port Neches Fire) Chief Curran earlier this week indicated the Nov. 23 deadline to acknowledge acceptance of the grant,” City Manager Andrè Wimer said. “There has been discussion between the city and the school district regarding the proposed site for the fire station, however at this point those conversations are ongoing and there will be additional discussion.”

Port Neches Fire Chief Steve Curran presented information to the school board at a meeting on Sept. 11 in hopes trustees would be in favor of trading the piece of land, located on Magnolia Avenue near Merriman Street, for the current city hall location, 634 Ave. C. The city is in the process of constructing a new city hall and the old facility will later be demolished.

The school board has indicated they are not interested in the city hall property and the district sought to find the value of the property.

Should a deal not be struck between the two entities regarding the property then the city may be forced to decline the grant and possibly face ramifications that go beyond the city limits.

“It is possible that denying the grant would jeopardize future Port Security Grant funding,” Curran said. “I say that based on what happened after the 2007 grant round.”

In 2007, the area including Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties were considered a Tier 1 port area with Tier 1 as the highest level of importance, per se, such as the ports in New York and New Orleans. The high level, he said, was due to the amount of industry in the area.

During this time many communities were still struggling to recover from Hurricane Rita leaving coffers  without the funding to put forth the required 25 percent match for projects. The area was awarded about $11.6 million for projects and without the match were forced to return millions of dollars.

Not long afterward the area was downgraded to a Tier 2 port with a small amount of funding available to spread around. Although no official explanation was given by the federal government for the downgrade, Curran believes it happened because the area declined the initial grant in 2007.

“Now here we are years after Rita and can afford to do the projects and the grant money is not available,” he said of the Tier 1 funding. “What I’m afraid of is that, no one has said this officially, that if we’re already reduced to a Tier 2 and do not take the grant then FEMA may not look at us (region) again.”

Should this scenario occur then major issues such as the completion of the regional interoperability project may not occur.

Bob Stegall, chief of contingency planning and force readiness at the Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit in Port Arthur, said the purpose of the grant is to construct the station and increase response times not only to the citizens of Port Neches but to industry in the area as well.

“They would be cutting minutes in response to the far end of their jurisdiction,” Stegall said.

Curran said the idea of a new station in a new location is about public safety, fire response, medical response and response to industry.

“It is totally beneficial to have equitable fire service delivery to all of Port Neches, regional partners, industry and the other Mid-County cities,” Curran said. “We are both (city and school district) trying to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”

Curran applied for a Port Security Grant for the new fire station in April and received notification from the Department of Homeland Security of the grant award on June 29. The $2.9 million grant calls for a 25 percent match from the city which totals about $1 million.

mmeaux@panews.com