Fed. grant to avert Pa. firefighter layoffs

The $1.1M grant will help retain six firefighters and pay for salaries and benefits for two years

By Jerry Lynott
The Times-Leader

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — The city will receive a $1.1 million federal grant to retain six firefighters and avoid layoffs considered earlier this year, officials said Wednesday

Wilkes-Barre Fire Chief Jay Delaney said the city received confirmation of the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant Wednesday morning.

The funding will pay for salaries and benefits for two years and arrives as the city is down to the remaining $300,000 of a $1.2 million SAFER grant awarded in 2014 to add eight firefighters to the department.

Mike Bilski, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 104, said the union was hopeful the grant would be awarded, especially since Mayor Tony George singled out the department for cuts in order to cover anticipated revenue shortfalls in this year’s $51.5 million balanced budget.

“The chance of layoffs are now gone,” Bilski said.

U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Moosic, and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, announced the award, which is distributed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The city applied under the hiring activity aspect of the program, eligible to departments seeking to increase the number of front-line firefighters and rehire those laid off due to the economy.

In a prepared statement the mayor said, “The city of Wilkes-Barre was in desperate need of this grant, as layoffs were imminent, and we appreciate the help from Senator Casey and Congressman Cartwright. Their persistence on this matter was critical to the grant being awarded to Wilkes-Barre.”

Shortly after George took office in January, he asked city council to amend the budget left by his predecessor Tom Leighton. George calculated an estimated $3.65 million shortfall as a result of unrealistic revenue projections and a $1.8 million deficit in 2015.

“If the budget doesn’t change, the city will be forced to make personnel changes to the only union contract that allows for layoffs: the Wilkes-Barre Fire Department. This will be the city’s last resort if the budget stays as is,” George said back then.

The mayor asked for a 25 mill tax increase, later reduced to 20 mills, to cover the shortfalls, but city council would not amend the budget and let it stand without a tax increase. The millage rate in the city is 121.63 mills. A mill is a $1 tax for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

Copyright 2016 The Times Leader

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