SAFERvote pushed back again

Sunday Times Newspapers

ALLEN PARK – Councilors have again pushed back a vote on whether to accept a federal grant to hire firefighters.

A City Council vote expected to be held at Tuesday’s regular council meeting on the acceptance of a $1.25 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant did not appear on the agenda after having been removed Sept. 11 and scheduled for a Sept. 18 vote at a special meeting, which was then cancelled.

If accepted, the grant, awarded in late August, could pay salary and benefits for six firefighters for the department, which currently has 23 firefighters, five below its minimum staffing levels.

“We felt because of some preliminary negotiations with the Fire Department, it would be best to hold that until a later date,” Mayor William Matakas said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Another issue, Matakas said, is a lack of pre-tested applicants, as all those who passed the necessary tests given by the Fire and Civil Service Commission have been hired.

“We don’t have anyone we could hire at this time even if we had the grant,” Matakas said.

The grants have sparked controversy in neighboring communities recently Taylor Mayor Jeffery Lamarand was found guilty of contempt of court Aug. 10 after refusing a judge’s order to accept a $8.1 million SAFER grant he said came with hidden costs the city could not afford.

He later accepted the grant after the International Association of Firefighters Local 1252 signed a memorandum of understanding requiring firefighters to cash in unused sick and vacation time during the grant period so the city can use the grant to pay for them, saving an estimated $1.2 million.

The grant’s uncertainly causes more issues in Allen Park. Their current budget was written to allocate funding for minimum staffing of 28 firefighters though they have 23, leaving an extra $5,000 budget overstatement annually.

Fire Chief Doug LaFond, who has denied any “hidden costs” in the grant, has said returning the department to its
minimum staffing levels would greatly reduce its overtime expenses of nearly $400,000 annually.

“So we don’t have the people but our budget says we’re paying for them,” Matakas said. “But if we had the people we wouldn’t have the overtime. So we have kind of a double cost in the budget.”

Councilman Dennis Hayes said he’s not sure the added staff would completely eliminate the high overtime expenses.

“I can’t believe it would vanish entirely because of the appearance of a few new people,” Hayes said. “There’s a tendency as we’ve talked about for there to be use of overtime for reasons other than simply not having enough people to meet the minimum staffing, so I wouldn’t be convinced that it would vanish just because we have this other staff.”

The revote has not yet been rescheduled but Matakas said the city has an extension to Oct. 23 to accept it.