SALISBURY – A grant to cover the hiring of 12 new firefighters was rejected this week as a majority of the Salisbury City Council felt not enough time has passed to work out the details.
Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin last month announced the Salisbury Fire Department was to be the recipient of a grant totaling $1,038,912 through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) program.
The department was tapped to use Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant funds to hire 12 new firefighters, three of whom are frozen positions and nine new, necessary to protect residents and maintain a full staff.
Due to the economic downturn, the department has not been able to maintain a full staff in two of the three fire stations in four years. The goal of any SAFER grant is to enhance the ability of grantees to attain and maintain 24-hour staffing. The intent of the grant for Salisbury is to allow the department to increase the number of frontline firefighters and to re-hire any firefighters who were laid off for economic reasons.
According to Council President Terry Cohen, the administration had informed the council last Friday that Tuesday, Aug. 14, at 9 a.m. was FEMA’s deadline for accepting the grant and in turn it came up as an emergency item during Monday evening’s legislative session. Councilwoman Laura Mitchell made a motion to add a resolution to accept the FEMA grant that night.
It was brought to the room’s attention that as the council found out the urgency in accepting the grant it also learned about a $400,000 miscalculation in benefit costs in the grant application that FEMA had already responded to and increased the grant amount in reflection of the mistake.
“If we had not asked a question leading to what appears the issue of an understatement of benefits and we had accepted the grant than we would have been on the hook for paying $400,000 plus out of our budget with no preparation for doing so,” Cohen said.
Council Vice President Deborah Campbell pointed out that on the last page of the grant application it states, “this application has been dually authorized by the governing body of the applicant” and that the council had not approved the application and such mistakes could have been caught.
Mitchell said the procedure is no different than how the city has applied for grants in the past.
“It took you to get to the last page to find a way to get out of it,” she said. “We have asked a ton of questions and we have gotten the answers to all of those … I don’t know where else to go with this.”
At a work session last week, the council discussed the proposed grant and concerns arose, such as while the just over $1 million grant would finance 12 firefighters’ salaries and benefits for two full years, Cohen pointed out that the city would be hard pressed to keep pace with the roughly $500,000 annual expense in salaries once the grant expired.
Cohen furthered those concerns this week by looking at the long-term effects of accepting the grant. She used the example of when the police department came to the council to discuss a stimulus grant that would allow it to hire additional officers.
“We had an extensive discussion before that grant was ever submitted,” she said. “We talked at length about how we were going to retain them and where the funding would come from … and if we lay those off, we will have unemployment costs to pay.”
Councilwoman Shanie Shields was in favor of accepting the grant.
“In our budget sessions, we tell our department heads to find funding and they have done this,” she said. “The public has also come and wanted more firefighters and EMTs, and now we have the opportunity to do this. “
Mayor Jim Ireton became frustrated with the discussion.
“There was absolutely no malice in the idea that somebody was trying to usurp someone else’s power,” Ireton said of the oversight on the grant application. “I have been on the phone with FEMA, the chief has been on the phone with FEMA, and we have said all along that it is the City Council that accepts grants for the City of Salisbury. It is unfortunate that what we have is a situation where someone is going to hide behind a sentence in order to make a point, I am not sure, we can probably debate it all night long and we have done it before.”
In the end, the council voted 3-2 to deny the motion to add the FEMA grant approval to the agenda to meet its deadline, with council members Mitchell and Shields in opposition and Cohen, Campbell and Tim Spies in support.
On Wednesday, Cohen expressed her disappointment in the ongoing issue of having administrative items added to the legislative agenda last minute.
“This is a chronic problem in the City of Salisbury that the council is kept out of the loop, in the dark, until a crisis is manufactured or arises in some way at the last minute where we are pressured into having to make a decision on very short notice, and it is a very difficult way to represent the best interest of the public when you are chronically put in that decision,” she said.