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Tensions Growing over SAFER grant
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Tension was high during a discussion on a SAFER grant that could be used to hire two city firefighters, if accepted by McMinnville officials.
City administrator David Rutherford says he must speculate because his name was not placed on the grant application as someone FEMA could speak to about information. Despite making a request weeks ago to be added, his name had not been placed on the “secure” list.
McMinnville Fire Chief Kevin Lawrence applied for the FEMA grant last year during discussions by the board to close Fire Station 2 and lay off eight firefighters. The grant had two portions — fund the eight people officials had talked about laying off, or fund the two positions that had been frozen approximately two years ago. Because the eight have not been laid off, the two frozen positions were funded.
Causing the controversy is wording in the grant which may require the city to maintain the same number of firefighters it currently has during the grant process. The city had discussed closing Fire Station 2 last year.
Rutherford says because he is being kept out of the grant information, he cannot confirm if the grant actually means the city must maintain all the positions it currently has, or only the two hired with the grant.
If it means FEMA will have control over the number of employees on the fire department staff, Rutherford wants to send it back and again consider closing Fire Station 2 and laying off eight of the 12 on staff.
“The grant creates a great concern for me because now FEMA is running the city’s fire department,” said Rutherford. “They are making decisions, as opposed to you, me, or the chief. I’ve told Mr. Lawrence I was planning on presenting, once again to the board, the decision to close Station 2 and lay off eight employees.”
Alderman Clair Cochran asked for information about other fire departments in the state. In Tennessee municipalities, fire departments are either volunteer, career (salaried), or a combination of the two. Approximately 34 departments are career and 72 are combination.
“One city we compare ourselves to, right or wrong, based on population is the city of Athens,” said Rutherford. “Based on my conversation with the city manager there, they work a really screwy schedule and I’m not going to get into it. They use a combination. They have 23 paid firefighter positions and 25 volunteer positions.”
In Athens, 12-15 volunteer firefighters report on an as-needed basis. If they come to fight a fire, they are paid a nominal hourly fee. If they sit in while a paid firefighter takes a vacation, they are paid a shift fee.
“There are things we need to look at and see if we can do things differently in the fire department,” said Rutherford. “We’ve done things differently in the police department. We have made changes over there to try and find ways to provide service, but minimize expense. We’ve made some headway in the fire department, but we need to make some more.”
Rutherford says he did ask Lawrence to look into cutting off scheduled overtime in an effort to save $100,000. Although it is not the $350,000 the city would save in shutting down Station 2, it might be enough to save Station 2.
Not being on the board when Station 2 was built, Cochran asked why it was constructed.
“First, we wanted to reduce the ISO rating,” said Rutherford. “Then, we needed to move forward with building it because we wanted to provide better fire protection to an area we annexed. The station was built, the property was annexed, and then, the property was de-annexed.”
Alderman Junior Medley asked Lawrence if hiring the two firefighters would help with overtime.
“Yes,” said Lawrence.
Given his first chance to speak at the meeting, Lawrence says he was never informed the two firefighter positions that were frozen two years ago were eliminated and would not be filled, until he read it in an edition of the Southern Standard last week.
“Mr. Rutherford has said time and time again that those two positions were frozen positions in the fire department,” Lawrence said. “No one has ever mentioned those positions had been eliminated.”
In 2008, prior to losing two firefighters, the department had 32 positions. Today, the department has 28. If officials accept the grant, the department will have 30.
“That’s 10 on a shift,” said Lawrence. “Mr. Medley mentioned overtime. Right now, I’ve got two people out that’s frozen and three out on medical leave. I’ll possibly have another one in a couple of weeks. Hopefully, one will be back in a couple of weeks.”
Lawrence says a lot of the overtime pay is going toward maintaining an adequate number of people on a shift in an effort to provide fire protection with reduced staffing.
When it comes to why Station 2 was built, Lawrence agrees with Rutherford that it did lower the ISO rating. However, he says it was built to increase protection for the Meadowbrook annexation not Rolling Hills, which was later de-annexed.
“As far as Station 2 goes Mrs. Cochran, that station was talked about years and years ago,” he said. “We’re talking 15-20 years. When they annexed Meadowbrook, that’s when they started talking about it. It wasn’t because of annexing Rolling Hills.”
When it comes to the $182,866 grant, the two positions filled using the grant must remain filled for a minimum of two years. Plus staff must be kept at that level.
“She (a staff member at FEMA) did say, if somebody retired, could not work, we fired somebody or we laid people off, we could ask for a waiver from the SAFER grant people,” said Lawrence.
Cochran says with no guarantee the city would qualify for a waiver, she does not have the “confidence level” necessary to accept the grant at this time.
Alderman Rick Barnes added, “I would feel more comfortable if our attorney looks this over.”
The city’s legal counsel, attorney Tim Pirtle, is also not on the list of individuals FEMA will talk to about the grant.
City officials continue to consider grant for two firefighters
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“This is the point I’m trying to make,” said Rutherford. “It’s the federal government. If we take their money, there are strings. We have to play by their rules.”
Vice Mayor Everett Brock instructed Lawrence to put Rutherford on the list so he could get information on the grant.
“It’s ludicrous that he’s not,” Brock added.
Lawrence reiterated to the board he believes the city would be “missing the boat” if they allow this grant to be returned, either by allowing too much time to pass or by rejecting it.
The controversial measure is still on the table. Officials have approximately four to six weeks to make a decision.