The city of Fairfield is considering a federal staffing grant, known as a SAFER grant, to fund six new full-time firefighters. MICHAEL D. PITMAN/FILE
Photo: MICHAEL D. PITMAN/STAFF
Photo: MICHAEL D. PITMAN/STAFF

Fairfield faces difficult firefighter decision, which could lead to new levy

Accepting the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant would require Fairfield to pay for the firefighters they hire once the grant runs out. To do that, the city would consider a new fire levy as soon as 2023, said City Manager Mark Wendling.

Without the grant, the city will still be faced with part-time firefighter shortages, he said.

“We have a decision to make,” Wendling said. “If you do decide to accept it, we do come into the red with the levy funds in about 2023. We would be subsidizing (the fire department) about $700,000, and then it jumps after that to about $2.2 million in 2024 from the general fund.”

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Wendling said the city “can find that money” for the first year after the grant expires, but costs would increase each year. The city could subsidize the fire department after the grant, but Wendling told City Council that would involve sacrificing other projects or using reserves.

The SAFER grant will provide the city with almost $1.26 million to hire six new full-time firefighters. The city must chip in another $782,900 in order to accept and help pay for the firefighters.

But in three years, the city cannot reduce its staffing levels — one of the strings attached to the federal grant. The city could re-submit its application and reduce the request for six firefighters, but Finance Director Scott Timmer said the federal government would be required “to re-evaluate our entire application, all the way from step 1.” And there’s no guarantee it will accept the re-submitted application, he said.

If Fairfield does not accept the grant, it faces a decreasing number of part-timers to fill the schedule, which is a staffing squeeze felt throughout the area.

Bennett said there are about 40 open full-time jobs around the region, and Fairfield Fire Chief Don Bennett said he doesn’t blame part-time firefighters for seeking full-time jobs. But that’s forcing Fairfield to fill the vacancies created by the loss of part-timers with mandated overtime for full-timers, “and people are getting frustrated,” Bennett said.

“One can assume the money is nice, but when you have somebody mandated in for an additional 24 hours, and they had plans with their family, it does have a negative impact,” Bennett said.

Fairfield will have 5,300 to 5,400 medic calls in 2019, which makes up about 85 percent of their total call volume.

In November 2016, Fairfield voters passed a 2.5-mill fire levy with 66.6 percent of the vote. It was the first time in 15 years the city asked for a fire levy. Council members are worried about the success of a levy if one goes back before 2024.

“We told (the voters) one thing, and if it’s sooner, I think people would be against it,” said Councilman Chad Oberson.

But Councilman Tim Abbott said while City Council must be watchful on finances, public safety “is paramount to what we do.”

Wendling said the goal is to make the current levy funding last as long as possible, but city officials will study best practices of other departments in similar staffing situations, and how other departments have dealt with the staffing issue.

There was no discussion on what type of levy could be requested, or how much, but Wendling said a property tax levy could be “a hard sell at this point.”

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