Grant has strings attached

The village of Fredonia has a decision to make about whether or not to accept $1.3 million in grant money, which will not come without a financial commitment from the village.

Lieutenant Randall Butts spoke to the board at a workshop meeting Monday night and explained a grant for which he has applied on behalf of the department was approved this week. The grant, provided through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is called the SAFER grant, or Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response. Butts said he has submitted applications for many years for the grant, but this is the first year it has been accepted by FEMA.

The grant provides for wages and benefits only for fire departments to have 24-hour coverage with at least two paid firefighters on duty at all times, to comply with National Fire Protection Agency standards. In Fredonia, this means nine firefighters would be hired in addition to the current staff of six full-time and two part-time firefighters.

If the grant is accepted by the board, the fire department must have hired nine new firefighters to be ready to begin by May 1. The grant money would pay for wages and benefits for two years, but not training or personal protective devices.

Butts told the board the cost of PPD for each firefighter would cost $2,500 per firefighter, or a total of $22,500. The cost of training would be unknown until candidates were being considered, assuming some have a degree of prior training. Butts said he estimates the highest cost of training, if all new hires had no prior training at all, would be $4,000 per person.

“I would rather come back to you and say, ‘This is how much money I saved you,’ rather than me coming back and begging for more money,” Butts explained. The total amount he estimated and submitted to the village for all costs associated with the hiring of nine firefighters is $63,000.

“Does it have to be nine?” Trustee Thomas Brown II asked. “Yes,” Butts replied, “it has to be nine.”

Concerns were raised about whether the village would be able to keep the firefighters after the two-year grant runs out or if the nine new hires would have to be laid off. Butts said the city of Salamanca laid off a number of firefighters after a series of grants ran out.

New hires would also be subject to civil service laws and contracts negotiated by the union. Trustee Adam Brown noted a “conflict of interest between the village and the union” if, after two years, the grant is not renewed and no funds are generated and allocated to continue to pay for nine firefighters. It was also noted by Village Administrator Rick St. George contract terms may increase the rate of pay for each after two years, and contract negotiations in the next two years may alter any projected costs.

Volunteer Chief Kurt Maytum said there may be a way to pay for the wages and benefits through charges from ambulance services. Currently, the village can’t bill insurance companies for ambulance services provided by the village because of regulations regarding volunteers, which cannot be on calls for which the village bills. If the department has full-time paid staff, the village is in a better position to charge insurance providers for the calls, which Maytum suggested could help pay for the wages.

Butts suggested there might be a way to pay for at least some of the firefighters to stay employed. “Maybe you only lay off three instead of all nine,” he said.

When asked by the OBSERVER if additional costs would be incurred from unemployment benefits if employees were laid off in two years, both St. George and Mayor Stephen Keefe said there would be costs associated with unemployment. Keefe added union contract requirements regarding callbacks to work would also be in effect.

“What is good about this is we have two years to figure out how to maintain the nine employees,” Butts stated, and noted calls to the department have been steadily increasing over the year, up by 34 percent in the last ten years. Many of the calls are for emergency medical services, which he said alone have increased by 47 percent. He explained calls often come back to back, requiring personnel to leave the station for one call as soon as they return from another. He added overtime costs may be reduced by the new employees.

“The longer someone has been (an employee), the more time off they have,” he said, so more employees would be able to cover vacation, sick and personal time, possibly without incurring overtime costs.

The board said it would need time to discuss the grant terms and calculate the costs before rendering a decision.

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