OCEAN CITY – The pressure was on the City Council this week as an array of Salisbury Fire Department staff member were present while the council changed its mind and decided to accept an almost $1.5 million grant to hire much needed emergency personnel.
A couple of weeks ago, the council rejected a resolution to accept nearly $1.5 million in grant funds over a two-year term from the United States Department of Homeland Security Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants (S.A.F.E.R) Program for the hiring of 12 additional firefighting personnel.
Due to the economic downturn, the fire department has not been able to maintain a full staff in two of the three fire stations in four years. The goal of any S.A.F.E.R 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.
Earlier this month, the majority of the council denied the grant for a number of reasons. The grant application was completed by Salisbury Fire Department (SFD) staff in 72 hours to meet its submission deadline. It was later recognized that a miscalculation was made in the grant application of about $400,000 in benefit costs but the program later added the amount to make up the difference.
Also, the long-term costs to the city for the additional personnel once the term of the grant was up were not analyzed, such as unemployment. Council Vice President Deborah Campbell also pointed out the language in the grant application, “this application has been dually authorized by the governing body of the applicant”, had not been done before the application was submitted.
City Administrator John Pick, Mayor Jim Ireton and Acting Fire Chief Rick Hoppes have been working with FEMA Branch Manager Cathie Patterson to give an extension to the city to consider accepting of the S.A.F.E.R grant and Patterson agreed to give until Sept. 4.
As the resolution returned to the council again this week, at least half of the room was full of SFD personnel who shared their voice on accepting the grant for the welfare of the city.
“We have had a little bit of a roller coaster ride over the last couple of weeks, and tonight you as the City Council are given something that many in life never get, a second chance to make something right,” SFD Assistant Chief Chris O’Barsky said. “I have no doubt accepting this grant will allow us to do our job safer, faster and more efficiently to service the citizens, who we are sworn to protect.”
O’Barsky furthered that the decision to approve the grant should have not been so difficult and the problem lies in the communication between the city administration and council.
“Stop the finger pointing, the accusations, confrontations, personal digs at one another, and all around negative leadership,” he said. “I am confident to say in speaking with citizens and employees of the city alike, from all departments, we are tired of being the laughing stock of the area when it comes to our governmental leaders.”
Next, Carolyn Hall, a former council president, weighed in, saying, “This is a gift that has been given to our community. They are going to give it to someone else if we don’t take it, in a heartbeat it will go somewhere else and it will never come back. The collateral damage for turning down a federal grant will spill down into other departments within our city, but also for years to come.”
Professional Firefighters of Maryland President Michael Rund who represents all the paid firefighters, EMT’s and paramedics across the state, said he almost “fell out of his seat” when he heard Salisbury turned down the S.A.F.E.R grant.
“These grants are applied for by fire departments across the state and across the country, these people are begging for this money,” Rand said. “If you turn this down, there is a pretty good chance that you will never get that again … it gives your city a chance to protect the citizens and its members that serve the city to have adequate staffing on the fire apparatus to respond in a timely manner to get their equipment and do their jobs.”
Campbell defended the council, saying it is her job to figure out whether the city can afford the additional firefighters. She said for weeks she has been refused information from the mayor of how much is left in the city’s surplus at the end of fiscal year 2012.
“I have been refused that information, and I don’t know who in good conscious could move forward with a decision like this without knowing this information,” she said.
Campbell offered a motion to amend the resolution to pass the SAFER grant contingent on receiving un-audited cash balance and the amount being returned to the surplus for fiscal year 2012.
“Historically, we have returned about $800,000 a year to surplus, and I want to know if that is true this year,” she said. “If it is true this year, then it shouldn’t be a problem to fund this. If it’s not true, we need to give it some serious thought … to make this decision without that information is foolish.”
Gerri Moore of Internal Services said the annual audit would not be completed for some time and that the department will still be submitting financial statements through September but in the meantime she can provide un-audited numbers in a quarterly report fashion at the mayor’s discretion.
Councilwomen Laura Mitchell and Eugenie Shields have been in support of the grant, and Mitchell argued that the surplus balance should not be an overriding factor. She said that if 12 firefighters were to be laid off than it would cost the city $134,000 in unemployment compensation.
“At the end of the two years in a financial perspective, I cannot imagine that we could not find $134,000 in saving from the overtime and part-time budget to fund that unemployment cost should it arise but to fully fund that $134,000 and still be on the plus side in the end,” she said. “So I don’t see it as an additional expense I see it as an opportunity to make our city safer and save money.”
Councilman Tim Spies, who became an EMT in 1975 and a firefighter in 1982, became the tie breaker.
“I was going to suggest in the spirit of cooperation we let the amendment go and just have the information be exchanged, rather than having a hoop-dee-doo,” he said. “Now that we know where the screw up was with putting in the grant application initially and the screw up has been unscrewed … I am fully ready to vote for this grant.”
Council President Terry Cohen said she was disturbed by the fact that year after year no extra firefighters have been requested during the budget process.
“We do the best we can with the information we are provided and if you tell us year after year 66 firefighters, and we can bring all this equipment, and we don’t need additional staff, and that is what department leadership and the mayor tells us and signs off on, that’s what we are going to believe,” she said. “Now you are telling us you need this.”
Campbell eventually agreed to vote down her motion if the mayor pledged to provide the information requested by Sept. 30 and the mayor refused to respond.
The council took a vote on the amendment resulting in all members saying nay.
The council then voted 4-0 to approve the resolution as is, to accept the S.A.F.E.R grant for $1.486 million to hire additional staff for the SFD, while Campbell abstained due to lack of information, resulting in a standing ovation.