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City looks to grant money to pay for extra firefighters

Tuesday, January 12, 2010 by Austin Monitor

City leaders may have figured out a way to pay for more firefighters, at least in the short-term, without incurring much of a long-term financial liability. That is the aim of a resolution on this week’s City Council agenda directing the city manager to apply for a SAFER grant and conduct a fiscal analysis.


The grant, through the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency
Response program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), would fund two years pay for 25 firefighters.


Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald explained that the grant “basically allows cities to achieve four-person staffing for firefighters. The grant is funded for two years and that is with the city making an obligation to make sure they at least keep the positions in place for an additional year, a third year.”


Asked whether city staff supports the idea of requesting the grant, McDonald replied, “We’re in favor of four person staffing…our only concern is that right now we’re experiencing some pretty significant economic challenges. So we just want to ensure that we’re in position to fulfill the requirements of the grant. At this point, that’s going to be part of the resolution to figure out what the cost is going to be, but to fund 25 firefighter positions for two years is $2 million a year for two years…”


Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez are sponsoring the resolution on this week’s Council agenda.


“Four-person staffing is adopted city policy and we’re on track to achieve that in 2013, but that is because we’ve experienced tough economic times,” Leffingwell said. “Now it appears we have a chance to achieve it much sooner with these grants.”


Leffingwell said he supports the grant program because even if the city is awarded the grant, it doesn’t have to accept it if it can’t find the money to fund the positions in the future.


“We looked at it about a month ago and decided it would be too much of a risk, but now it appears we could – by attrition, by retirements – there’s very little risk. We feel sure – and this is subject to verification – that more than 25 firefighters will retire during that two-year time.”


McDonald said the grant program has some advantages.


“It gives you a little bit of flexibility,” McDonald said. Although those grant-funded positions must remain filled, McDonald said, the city apparently would be able to leave vacant other firefighter positions that might occur as a result of retirement or other leave taking.


“In the third year….the positions that you hire have to stay in place but it gives you the flexibility to attrite other positions,” he said. “We’re looking at the pros and cons and will get the information back to Council as soon as possible.”

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