Wisconsin Town Sends SAFER Grant Back To Feds

A Wisconsin fire department that won a $600,000 Department of Homeland Security grant will have to find another solution to its staffing problems after the city voted to reject the funds.

The Franklin Common Council voted unanimously against accepting the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant, citing a number of financially restrictive conditions coupled with general budget concerns.

"Bottom line," Franklin Mayor Thomas Taylor said, "the city would have had to raise taxes by $1.7 million" to cover salaries and benefits for the six new firefighters the grant would have allowed the department to hire. He added that in the current municipal climate, a hefty tax hike is not an option.

Without the SAFER grant, the Franklin Fire Department and the Council will continue looking for new staffing options. The firefighters union has already agreed to start talks with the city regarding contracts for three new firefighters; however, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Local 2760 President John Young said the membership is unlikely to agree to make many concessions.

"The [SAFER grant] would've been a good opportunity to fill our needs," Franklin Chief James Martins said. Though he was disappointed with the Council's decision to reject the grant, he said the department is exploring ways to add firefighters to its already stretched ranks.

"At least the door's open" -- for union-city contract discussions -- "we're glad about that," Martins said. The city hopes to negotiate retirement benefits before hiring new firefighters.

"We applied for the grant because we don't meet state and federal staffing requirements," Martins said. He added that the department currently serves 32,000 people in a 34.5-mile area.

Martins said that in the past year or so the department has seen response times increasing along with a growing population. Additionally, developers have added about 2,200 new structures to the city since 2002, including retirement communities that put more pressure on EMS resources.

Right now, the department relies on mutual aid to cover calls when its crews are tied up. With demands on fire and EMS personnel likely to become heavier in coming years, the department understands it must beef up its ranks.

Aside from hiring three new firefighters, the department is considering an apprenticeship programs in which new EMTs are brought on to work for a specified period of time. Under the program, the department would pay salaries with no, or limited benefits; in exchange, apprenticing EMTs gain experience to help them get full-time positions with other departments.

"[The apprentices] would be limited. But they can do things like pull hose, run EMS calls," Martins said.

The department and city also considered a SAFER grant option to hire 12 part-time firefighters paid hourly, on-call wages. Martins said they ultimately decided against that plan because in addition to training and outfitting costs, DHS would require 28 hours per week of service from those firefighters to maintain funding. If DHS requirements weren't maintained, the department would lose the grant.

"I didn't want to put us in that position," Martins said of the part-time option, adding that those firefighters could leave at any time to take a position with another department. Additionally, that plan would face resistance from the union.

The main factor cited for rejecting the grant is the matching funds requirement.* Under the SAFER program, the department would have been required to phase in the salaries and benefits costs for its new firefighters over five years.

The council said that aside from losing state funding for exceeding spending limits, it wouldn't be able to pay the increasing costs not covered by SAFER.

According to the DHS Web site, "Departments winning federal assistance for hiring are expected to pick up the entire tab after four years. ... During the first year, the grant pays 90 percent of the costs of a firefighter's salary up to $36,000." The next year, DHS would pay 80 percent, followed by 50 percent and ending at 30 percent.

DHS has $65 million for 2005 SAFER grants. For FY 2006, the department will have $110 million.

Related: First SAFER Grants Put to Use