OSWEGO, NY â€“ At what cost safety?
For the Port City, that figure appears to be $729,000.
The mayor and members of the council this week continued to debate the value of the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) Grant from FEMA.
The grant would allow the city’s fire department to hire 12 additional firefighters, which could lower the overtime in the department. And it could increase the department’s insurance ratings, which would mean a savings in fire insurance costs for city businesses and to a lesser extent residents, too.
It would also go a long way in increasing safety, proponents said.
The first year of the grant would be a freebie, said Lt. Jon Chwago, the department’s grant writer. The second year, the city would have to come up with $18,533. However, in year three, the city share would be $729,071.
Under the grant, the city would be required to keep the new firefighters for the three years of the grant, and maintain staffing size.
Other costs would be sending 12 new firefighters to the academy (approximately $3,500 per person) and equipment for each new firefighter (about $1,800 per firefighter).
Councilor Bill Sharkey couldn’t see how the city could afford the grant; especially, he added, since the city would likely have to pay for the new firefighters (including benefits and retirement) for 20 years.
“Put the grant back in the envelope, I’ll give you a stamp, and mail it back to FEMA,” he told the firefighters.
The fire department’s annual overtime budget is around $200,000.
With the addition of the new firefighters, that amount would be significantly reduced and would help offset the $729,071 in year three, according to John Geraci, the firefighters’ union president.
For 2009, the city ambulance service billed $1,066,944 at a 90 percent collection rate that equals $960,250, Chwago said.
Projecting to 2011, he said the figure would be $1,138,856 â€“ an increase of $178,606.
“In theory, we’ll match that $178,606 without doing anything, without changing our operations. So without SAFER we’ll realize $178,606,” Chwago said.
The number of ambulance calls have been increasing annually by about 4 percent; and will likely be well above that this year, he added.
Another cost-savings/revenue generator could be to combine some of the smaller departments (the way the city did with Parks & Rec and the DPW), according to First Assistant Chief Jeff McCrobie.
The city could run the Code Enforcement from the fire department, he said, stressing that it was just an idea.
The fire department currently does some inspections; with the additional staff, they could do many more, he pointed out.
It is just some of the way the department is looking at to generate revenue to offset the local share of the grant, Chwago explained.
“We’re going to hire 12 people, and lay them off in three years or are we going to hold them for the next 20?” Sharkey asked.
Geraci noted that the city could do whatever it pleases at the end of the grant. However, the union would be opposed to making any reductions, he added.
“The intent of the grant, at its inception, is to provide fire departments to be able to run at what the National Fire Protection Association says is a minimum safe level,” he said. “It’s not to be looked at as a commitment for just three years. The union’s position is we are making a commitment to safety, we shouldn’t be looking at making a commitment to safety for only three years.”
The union official said he wouldn’t become a hypocrite and say he would fight (for the 12 positions) today, but not fight for it tomorrow.
“I would really like to know how much safety we can possibly afford in the city of Oswego,” Sharkey said. “We’re looking at tens of millions of dollars worth of debt, and $87 million in the consent decree.”
According to his research, Oswego has the largest fire department, per capita, in New York State for cities of comparable size, and Oswego is number 44 on the list for the entire country, Sharkey added.
Chwago clarified that in cities such as Fulton, they have 8-man shifts for firefighters. But when you take into account they have private ambulance services with 4 EMTS dedicated to the city, the number is 12 â€“ the same as the current staffing for Oswego.
The Oswego Fire Department also provides ambulance service to SUNY Oswego, basically a city of 8,900 people, Chwago said.
Geraci pointed out that departments that don’t have ambulance services don’t generate revenue for their communities.
“How are we ever going to come up with enough money, in the long run, to afford this?” Sharkey asked.
“I guess that is what we’re here to figure out,” replied McCrobie.
“I can figure it out for you. Take the SAFER grant, put it back in the envelope, I’ll give you the stamp, and send it back,” Sharkey said.
“We presented you this grant, we’re trying to find a way to make it work and all you keep saying is no,” McCrobie said.
“When we hire 12 people, we’re looking at 20-year employees, how are we possibly going to make that up in the 4th, 8th, 12th, 15th, 20th year? We are never going to do it in the economic climate in the city of Oswego,” Sharkey said. “I’ll give you 50 cents for a stamp, just send it back. It makes dollars and cents to send the money back.”
The full council will, one way or another, decide the matter at its April 26 meeting.
FEMA’s deadline for the city to respond is April 27. So, the city can vote to accept or reject the grant. Or, they can take no action and FEMA will approach another city with the grant proposal.