NY town may consider grant to hire more firefighters

The grant could be used to rehire laid-off firefighters, retain firefighters facing layoffs, fill positions vacated through attrition or hire new firefighters

By Craig Fox
Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN, N.Y. — City Council members will be asked again Monday night whether they have an interest in applying for a federal grant that would help the city hire more firefighters.

In an April 10 memo to council members, City Manager Sharon A. Addison reiterated her opposition to applying for the Staffing for an Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant.

The topic of the SAFER grant may be discussed at Monday night’s City Council meeting.

In recent years, the SAFER grant has become a bone of contention between the fire department and the city manager. The grant application is due on April 27.

Fire Chief Dale C. Herman said he wanted to make sure the city manager was aware that the city could apply for the SAFER grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“I have no expectations that we would apply for the grant,” he said Friday.

The fire chief has advocated the grant as a way to keep overtime costs down. During the current fiscal year, overtime expenses have reached $549,000 for the 68-member department.

The grant could be used to rehire laid-off firefighters, retain firefighters facing imminent layoffs, fill positions vacated through attrition or hire new firefighters to reach industry standards.

In her memo, Ms. Addison argued that the grant would not be a responsible business decision for the city. The city has been trying to reduce the department’s staff levels through attrition during a nearly four-year labor dispute with the firefighters’ union, she wrote.

“It locks in a larger department size, rebuffing years of negotiation strategy,” she wrote.

The previous City Council and Ms. Addison opposed applying for the grant while the city is in the midst of a nasty contract dispute with the Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191.

At the time, council members contended that the new hires could affect the result of the dispute with the union.

But the makeup of the council changed in January with the addition of council members Lisa A. Ruggiero and Ryan Henry-Wilkinson, who have taken a more pro-fire department stance than their two predecessors.

Councilman Henry-Wilkinson remains in support of applying for the grant, saying that overtime costs will decrease when more firefighters are on staff.

Councilman Cody J. Horbacz said he’s concerned about having an aging fire department, with the median age at 45. The city needs to start thinking about hiring younger firefighters with more retirements in the future.

“It’s like a football team,” he said, adding that it’s more difficult for older football players to play at the same level as when they were younger.

The fire department has not been allowed to make any new hires since Ms. Addison became city manager in 2012.

Last February, council members decided against submitting a grant application for six firefighters.

In 2015, the city was awarded a $288,000 “SAFER grant” that would have paid all of the salaries and benefits for two unfilled firefighter positions, but council members rejected the funding because they did not know how it would impact labor talks with the firefighters’ union.

Council members meet at 7 p.m. in the third-floor council chambers of City Hall.

Copyright 2018 Watertown Daily Times

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