Federal funds safe for fire staffing

Sunday Times Newspapers

TAYLOR — At least two new hires will join the Fire Department in the next few months, positions that the city must fill to continue receiving funds from a soon-to-expire federal grant.

Mayor Rick Sollars said the Federal Emergency Management Administration approved a six-month extension of a staffing grant that had been threatened by non-compliance as the department had not hired a minimum number of firefighters under the $8.1 million grant.

“The struggle was that most of the medics applying knew it was a short-term job,” Sollars said. “We had a difficult time filling it.”

When city officials first applied for FEMA’s SAFER staffing grant two years ago, the hope was to maintain staffing for a shrinking fire department that had recently closed two of three stations. The department had fallen well below the required number of firefighters needed to keep all three stations open, and city coffers were strained following a round of municipal layoffs in 2011.

Acceptance of the grant had turned into a political debate at times, with council members divided on accepting the funds. The grant was approved in 2012 and hiring soon allowed all three stations to operate.

The restored personnel count, however, fell two positions short of grant-required minimums, and city officials sought and received a six-month extension. Sollars said that meeting the grant obligations should not be an issue.

“The good news is we have enough funds,” Sollars said. “We had a difficult time filling it and FEMA punished us, but the penalty doesn’t hurt too much.”

The city forfeited just over $500,000 for falling short of the minimum, although more than $2 million remains which Sollars said is more than adequate to finance the 32 positions required. The contrast from where the struggling city stood during the worst of the regional recession was notable, Sollars said, and cause for continued optimism.

Renewed strength-in-numbers at the Fire Department have been matched with additional police hires to bring public safety resources back in line with the needs of a city, and economic indicators appear to be improving.

“We’ve come a long way in a short time,” Sollars said. “Both police and fire are on the way up, taxable values are rebounding.”

Sollars said the recent appointments of Fire Chief Dan Reynolds and Deputy Chief George Quiroz were further confirmation of the department’s improved stability, and that a priority will be to begin short- and long-term planning, including applying for a second FEMA grant in advance of the current period’s expiration.

“We now have a foundation of leadership in place to evaluate the department, assess the needs and determine the future,” Sollars said.

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