Grant funds 22 new county firefighting jobs for two years
Published: Tuesday, January 14, 2014 at 3:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 14, 2014 at 3:11 p.m.
The Alachua County Commission on Tuesday approved a two-year federal grant for around $2 million that will pay for 22 new Fire Rescue positions, although the county might not be able to afford keeping those jobs once the money runs out.
The grant, from the Department of Homeland Security's SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) program, does not obligate the county to continue funding the jobs once it ends. The new firefighters will help increase the staff at stations in the rural cities of Archer, Hawthorne and Waldo.
The grant period will begin in March and run through March 2016, according to the county meeting agenda. If the county fills any of the new jobs with military veterans, those positions are eligible to be fully funded for three years rather than two.
Alachua County Fire Rescue Chief Ed Bailey said his department will not wait until the grant ends to address how to preserve the new positions once the federal money is gone. He will look at making incremental funding changes within his department during the forthcoming budget cycles to cover those positions, he told the commission Tuesday. He also said the county might be able to preserve those positions through attrition if Fire Rescue has vacancies for other jobs it can use to keep the new jobs instead.
In 2013, 18 positions opened up in ACFR's operations division through retirements, terminations and resignations, Bailey said. While the department clearly can't keep those jobs unfilled for two years until the grant ends, he told The Sun there could be new vacancies at that time it might be able to use for that purpose.
He said he doesn't want to do any layoffs but told the commission his department would consider that if the alternatives don't work out.
Commissioner Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson said this "phenomenal" grant is as close to free money as you can get and will help save lives.
"There's no doubt in my mind that it's safer for our firefighters, it's safer for our citizens, and I think it's a great thing," he said.
Commissioner Susan Baird said this is a gift that might not keep giving, although the county will have the money for now. But she pointed out it would be difficult for the county to decide not to fund these new positions once the grant ends.
"When you give somebody something, to take it away in two years is extremely hard," she said.
Commissioner Mike Byerly agreed it could be tough to backpedal on this, which would mean the money used to pay for these jobs two years from now wouldn't be available for other things.
Commissioner Lee Pinkoson, who is running this year for re-election, said his budgetary priorities wouldn't lie with funding the positions once the grant ends, but rather with funding raises for employees and infrastructure.
The commission unanimously voted in favor of accepting the grant, but it also directed county staff to send a letter to the cities of Archer, Hawthorne and Waldo making it clear the positions will probably go away once the grant ends so they will be aware of the situation.
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or email@example.com.