Cash to protect firefighter spots clears hurdle

Mayor Jim Ireton’s plan to continue funding for city firefighters hired in conjunction with a federal grant appears headed for approval following an initial City Council vote this week.

Council members were sympathetic and supportive of both the mayor’s and Fire Department’s desire to keep trucks on all shifts staffed with at least four firefighters, thereby meeting accepted emergency services guidelines.

By voice vote, the council backed a budget amendment that funds four additional full-time Firefighter/EMT positions at a cost of $160,610.

City officials made staffing adjustments following last month’s expiration of a federal grant that helped pay for 12 additional firefighters. This grant was never meant to hire firefighters for permanent position status.

Two of the new positions will staff Engine 16 at SFD Headquarters, one will staff Truck 1 at Station 1, and one will staff Truck 2 at Station 2.

“I see the need. It’s out there,: said Councilman Tim Spies. “We have to fund our Fire Department. It’s a fact of life.”

“We take safety very seriously,” said Council President Jake Day. “It’s critical to have these four fighters on each truck.”

“Presently the Salisbury Fire Department is fully staffed on each fire truck at five firefighters on board,” Ireton said. “This budget amendment for four firefighters is dedicated to keeping four firefighters on each fire apparatus when sickness or vacation time has them understaffed.”

The budget amendment pays the officers through the end of FY2015. Chief Rick Hoppes will then be tasked with including them in his FY2016 budget.

Last week, the mayor sought to tie the continued funding to the city’s longstanding battle with Wicomico County over financing emergency services. City-financed crews routinely operate in the county; the mayor wants to ensure the city be paid for those services.

According to Ireton, that amounts to $2.2 million in cost that is not paid back to the city.

The Salisbury Fire Department responds to about two-thirds of the 16,000 fire and medical calls in Wicomico County each year, but it receives just 20 percent of the county’s fire spending.

The city has long wanted more money, but the cash-strapped county — including other fire companies outside the city — has resisted tackling the issue on the premise that residents everywhere are receiving adequate service.

The council, while supportive of the mayor’s effort, signaled their belief that a deal with the county would be difficult.

“We’re never going to see that money from the county. It’s just pie in the sky,” said Spies. “We’re going to be paying for it.”

Day said that the city and county leaders have a good relationship, and those connections need to be tapped to craft an arrangement that respects the city’s contribution and role.

“Relationships are everything,” he said. “Relationships are how things get done. It’s going to require a compromise. We have a good relationship right now and we all want to keep that. Getting the county to transfer the money (right now) probably isn’t reasonable.”

Day noted that the Fire Department is rare in that it returns $250,000 a year to the budget through fees it assesses. “I have no doubt the money we are paying today (to fund firefighters) will come back.”

Ireton said he has activated two frozen fire service positions  and hired to permanent status 11 SAFER Grant officers. The city hopes to be awarded the grant again in 2015.

One Salisbury resident did take the podium to advise the council to exercise more caution.

“The public is very skeptical,” said Kate Gibson. “This (funding gap) wasn’t supposed to happen and it has. A lot of us predicted this.

“This won’t be temporary,” she said, “it will be in the budget forever.”

Gibson said she believed the department had enough available volunteers to supply the manpower. She also recommended a top-to-bottom “rethink” of the department’s structure.

 

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