City declines on accepting fire staffing grant

By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers

LINCOLN PARK — The idea was good, but the numbers didn’t add up for the city to accept a federal grant to hire additional firefighters.

A motion made during Tuesday’s city council meeting to accept a $600,000 Federal Emergency Management Administration grant was defeated 5-2, with Mayor Patricia Diaz-Krause and councilman Mario DiSanto casting minority votes.

The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant would would have allowed the city to add three firefighters to its current roster of 27.

Although the grant would have paid for salary and benefits during its two-year period, City Manager Greg Capote said there were too many financial concerns for the funds to be accepted.

“It just doesn’t cover all the costs,” Capote said.

Last month Capote outlined his study of the grant in a letter to the mayor and council. In spite of the perceived benefits of adding staff to the department, Capote explained that the restrictions would jeopardize the city.

“It guarantees not only a no layoff clause, but requires us to fill vacancies and add to our Fire Department … will be facing cutbacks and layoffs,” Capote wrote in a letter dated Aug. 20.

The grant would not have covered equipment, training and other costs associated with the personnel, which Capote said were not necessary, let alone affordable.

“The city just doesn’t have the funding to support a fire department of that size,” Capote said after last week’s meeting.

Diaz Krause reluctantly accepted the decision, and said that last week’s vote was in part a formality.

“Because of the amount of money involved and the importance of this issue, I felt a formal vote was required,” Diaz Krause said.

Capote said the department’s current staffing was consistent with a declining population and reflective of budget concerns. The current 27 firefighters are a reduction from 30 a few years ago; retirements left positions that went unfilled while the city wrestled with a shrinking budget that resulted in layoffs and cutbacks across the board. The fire department currently has a no-layoff clause through June 30, 2013, as negotiated between the city and fire union. The grant, Capote said, would have extended that clause for the entire department for an additional 14 months.

“They are the only department with guaranteed daily staffing,” Capote said. “We cannot extend the no layoff clause, hire new firefighters and continue with the present contract. We do not have the resources for that.”

(James Mitchell can be reached at jmitchell@bewickpublications.com.)