The Fairbanks City Council denied a request by city Fire Chief Warren Cummings Monday to apply for a $1.9 million grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security to help the fire department recruit and train new personnel.
Councilman Jerry Cleworth told Cummings that he was concerned about the upfront cost and the ongoing financial burden that he says would come with the nine new fire department employees that the so-called SAFER grant would obligate the city to hire.
SAFER stands for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response. The two-year, $1.9 million grant is offered through the federal Department of Homeland Security. Cleworth says keeping the new workers on the payroll after that would cost the city a million dollars a year.
“Because we know, at the end of two years, we’re not going to have a million dollars, which it’s going to take, to keep nine people on,” he said.
Cummings says the city wouldn’t be required to hire the nine trainees – and that they’d be aware of that from the beginning.
“If you hire somebody and tell them they’re going to terminate in two years, I think they’re going to believe you that they’re going to be terminated in two years,” he said.
Mayor John Eberhart added that language in the ordinance makes that clear: “The ordinance expressly states, in the last paragraph: ‘these positions will terminate.’”
But Cleworth says the city would be hard-pressed to lay them off once the grant runs out – which is what happened the last time the city got a SAFER grant.
“We have a track record with SAFER grants.” he said. “We took one. It was for three individuals. What did we do at the end of that SAFER grant? We hired them. We increased our staffing by three, because we didn’t want to lay them off.”
Councilman Bernard Gatewood pointed out that Cummings’ comments about the fire department being understaffed suggests the city will need the new workers to bring the department staffing level up to national standards.
“Really,” he said, “there’s no way in hell that we can terminate these positions, if we get them, based on what you’re saying – that we’re like four positions below the national average.”
Cleworth debated that point with Cummings, suggesting that based on a different measure the department is adequately staffed.
His concerns over costs swayed other council members, all of whom, except Gatewood, voted against the proposal.