$850,000 Grant to Allow Ferndale to Rehire 4 Firefighters
SAFER grant could bring back four firefighters for two years at no cost to the city.
The Ferndale Fire Department is getting some help from the federal government in the form of an $851,164 SAFER grant.
SAFER, which stands for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, will allow the fire department to rehire the four firefighters it laid off this summer for two years at nearly zero cost to the city. Ferndale will still have to pay for the firefighters' physicals and drug tests required before they return to duty.
"This is great news and will help improve the safety of our city," Fire Chief Kevin Sullivan said.
But there is a catch. The department cannot lay off anyone while utilizing the SAFER grant. If it does, the grant would be cut by the equivalent savings. Currently, the department staffs 23 firefighters, a chief marshal and the chief.
"We can't lay anyone off or we lose the equivalent of the grant," Sullivan said. The department can file a "hardship clause" to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but it would have to prove major city financial damages. "Basically, 'the sky is falling' scenarios," Sullivan said.
The grant comes to Ferndale from FEMA and it was created to keep departments staffed and trained. It is an annual, competitive grant. Ferndale is one of 10 Michigan communities to receive funds from the Department of Homeland Security Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (AFGP). A total of $1,603,448 was given to these organizations with Ferndale getting the largest grant.
The fire department lost seven firefighters last year, four through layoffs and three through attrition, due to budget cuts. The city closed a $3.5 million deficit last year by reducing staffing. In addition to the fire department cuts, City Hall reduced its workforce by 28 percent and took a 5 percent pay decrease and the police department laid off eight patrol officers and lost one through attrition.
Ferndale is facing a projected $2.1 million deficit for the next budgeting cycle.
"This grant does absolutely nothing to bridge the ($2.1 million) budget deficit," City Manager Bob Bruner said. "But if we can find a way to create revenue, such as the Headlee Override, and afford to not make cuts (to the fire department), the feds will fund those firefighters."
Bruner also added that the grant has no affect on arbitration.
The City Council-appointed, 12-member Financial Planning Committee, has recommended a Headlee Override. A tax increasing measure, the Headlee Override, if put on a special election in may by Council and passed by the voters, is expected to bring in an estimated $2.5 million-$3 million in revenue. Yet the committee is still asking the council to take a look at various reductions in general fund services, including a $750,000 reduction in public safety budget, which makes up 60 percent of the general fund.
"This grant is certainly a win for the city and the firefighters," Bruner said. "But I don't see how this will affect what we have now. It doesn't help maintain our current level of service (financially)."
If current staffing levels are maintained, Sullivan said that hiring four more firefighters will allow the department to increase its minimum staffing level from six to seven per shift, and possibly eight, which would bring the department back to pre-layoff levels.
Sullivan said he's already started calling the four firefighters he had to lay off this summer, telling them to get ready to come back.
"We don't have depth right now," Sullivan said. "If I could get these four guys back tomorrow, I'd do it. But hopefully next week we'll get them in for physicals."
Council is getting ready to enter the budget process for next year. It will discuss the potential millage at its Jan. 24 meeting and has to make a decision for a special election ballot by Feb. 3. Residents can vote on the millage, but service cuts are the Council's discretion.