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Council divided on firefighter grant

POSTED February 11, 2011 8:24 p.m.

After a close City Council vote the Turlock City Fire Department has been given the green light to pursue a federal grant that would pay for increased staffing.

The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER grant, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, provides funding to local fire departments and volunteer firefighting associations to increase the ranks of trained front line firefighters.

Turlock’s city fire department is in the applications process for the grant, which if approved, would award the fire department $523,692 to fund three firefighter positions.

“You typically don’t get the announcement I got unless they’re 99 percent sure you’ll be approved,” said Fire Chief Tim Lohman.

If Turlock is to get the grant, it would pay the total salary and benefits for three firefighters for 24 months.

The application process requires the approval of the governing body, like the city council, before moving on. After some debate Mayor John Lazar, and council members Amy Bublak and Bill DeHart voted to move forward and council members Mary Jackson and Forrest White voted against it.

“The benefits are outweighing the downsides…” DeHart said. “The reality is here we’ve got a bucket of money that’s saying we’re willing to partner with you for a period of two years and whether it is a position of hoping for the best over the next two years or accepting that partnership and moving out smartly.”

The city is not required to contribute any matching dollars, however, they do have to agree to no lay-offs during the 24 months of the grant.

Lohman explained that the city’s fire department currently has a roster of 43 firefighters, which would be the set number the city is required to maintain. If for example, a position is lost to attrition, either through retirement or someone leaving the organization, then the city would have a choice of filling that position or lose the grant funding for that position.

If the city’s budget woes forced them to lay off firefighters, then the grant money would be lost, unless the city applied for a waiver with documentable proof that poor economic conditions have affected the entire public safety sector in the city.

At the end of the 24 months the city can either choose to maintain the staffing levels and take on the expense, or opt to let the positions go — an option which gave some on the council pause.

“I’m just very hesitant based on going to Sacramento and hearing first-hand how bad it is and we really don’t know what physically is going to come down,” said Councilmember Jackson.

The trepidation expressed by Jackson was an echo of the recommendation by City Manager Roy Wasden to quit the grant process.

“What I fear is hiring these people for 24 months and then at the end of 24 months having to lay them off because the budget won’t be able to support them,” Wasden said. “The grant anticipates that and then it’s just the ethical question of bringing people in the door knowing the hurdle we face over the next 24 months to bring the budget into balance.”

Turlock Fire Capt. Gary Carlson, who helped co-author the grant proposal with Allison Van Guilder, said the sheer ranks of unemployed firefighters would make employment, even if just for two years, a positive prospect.

“There are hundreds of thousands of firefighters out of work right now and even letting them know up front that it might only before two years, you’d still have a long line,” Carlson said.

Back in 2006 the City Council set a goal of bringing the fire department’s staffing level to 48 over the course of three years. The closest the department got to that number was in December 2008, when they reached 47. Since then the numbers have gone down, which consequently raises the department’s overtime costs.

The grant would reduce overtime pay by $320,000 for the two year period, Lohman said.

“The grant would essentially pay for the overtime that we are currently paying to maintain the three person staffing levels,” Lohman said.

To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail sstafford@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.

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