Let’s be honest, the East Contra Costa County Fire Protection District was never going to turn down the $7.8 million Federal Grant—the agenda said so! With that said, this really is good news for the next two years as the District can ramp up to the level of service we deserve while it buys two-years to work towards a long term solution.
The District had to accept the grant because there is no plan going forward to increase revenue which will always be a problem in East County. The only thing going on in East County is the sounds of crickets in the fields and birds chirping—nothing will get done for the next four years in terms of added revenue, sorry but it’s the truth.
I am all for accepting this grant because while it’s not perfect, it’s the best option available today (thank you Jim Mathers) and it buys two years of added safety which we otherwise would not have! We would be stuck with three engines, 9 firefighters covering 256 square miles, and reduced aid from CONFIRE.
Ultimately, it would have been irresponsible for the District to say no. If an incident occurred and they turned down the money, can you say lawsuit? If anything, its a moral obligation ensure the best possible service is available within budget (added firefighters and stations). Not only do the residents deserve this, the firefighters need the help.
With that said, now comes the hard part with many questions to be answered as to what action the board will take with the grant which includes which stations open, how many of our firefighters return (nearly half have accepted other jobs), hiring, operational costs, and many other implementation questions.
But the good news is that the process can now begin on improving the District for a period of two years—remember, this grant is a two-year solution and will go away.
I previously posted the Board Packet and Staff Report which includes all the requirement and the grant response. You can read that in great detail, but here are the highlights:
On August 24, 2012 the District was advised by FEMA that are being awarded a SAFER grant
The SAFER grant award covers salary and benefits for 27 firefighters for 24 months, for a total of $7,809,480. This will allow the district to rehire the 15 personnel laid-off and hire an additional 12 firefighters.
There are several requirements related to accepting this grant attributable to staffing levels, they are:
- ECCFPD must maintain the 54 firefighter positions for the 24 months of the grant award.
- Engine companies must have a minimum of three personnel per crew.
- All firefighter positions must be filled with full-time employees (no overtime).
- Administratively the grant requires documentation and accounting throughout the grant duration.
There are costs to the District that are not covered under the grant:
- One-time cost for reopening stations – estimated $1,000 per station
- Ongoing costs per station – estimated $25,000 per station per year
It is currently anticipated that one-time and ongoing expenses outlined above should be able to be absorbed within the Districts current budget.
The onetime costs of hiring firefighters that are new to the District are currently estimated to be approximately $7,500 per person (recruitment, equipment and training). However, this total expense will not be known until the District is able to determine the number of returning laid off firefighters as these expenses would not apply to them
Steve Barr – What is the timeline for hiring employees?
The chief responded that there is a 60-90 day window to begin the process. This will be a phased process to bringing on staff with 9 of the firefighters that were laid off, bring on another 9, and a final 9. According to the Chief, this is a normal process for fire districts who take on this grant. November 1 to December 1 is when ECCFPD can hire their personnel and open stations.
Stonebarger – When does the 24-month grant start?
The chief explained it begins when they accept it. In speaking with Jim Mathers, the clock begins when the District goes onto the FEMA website and hits “accept”, that is when the clock starts.
Stonebarger – what happens if we can’t afford to keep positions during the grant?
The chief responded, we would be in default/violation of the grant.
Stonebarger – what has FEMA done in default?
The chief explained FEMA has been lenient with agencies
Stonebarger – Is there any protection on the value of the grant increasing if benefits increase?
The chief explained that if benefits/medical costs go up, ECCFPD would be responsible for paying for it out of their budget.
Gene Clare – he applauded Staff for having the foresight to apply for this grant ahead of time. He explained while there is always strings attached, he urged approval as this will save time and lives of East County residents. He urges the Board to accept the grant. He also explained that “I’m alive today thanks to the efforts of firefighters,” he said.
Mark Whitlock – he explained that 94 (Knightsen) would be turnkey to re-open. Urged the Board to open that station first to remedy the pains they see on Bethel Island with long response times. He said “I do know the grant has a lot of strings attached, but obviously we have no choice but to take the money and use 24-months to get in a position to get on better footing”.
Vince Wells – Local 1230 is in support of you (the board) accepting this grant. “We do recognize conditions do need to be worked out, but at the same time, we have 9 firefighters on duty. This is a huge deal to get staffing levels up. It was Jim Mathers who did the grant”. He went on to explain how the National Professional Firefighters worked closely with the Obama Administration to get the grant. “When you accept the grant, we can talk about the details and whether or not to accept the full grant or partial grant.”
Stonebarger – “I don’t think we have a choice but to take it, but we need to be careful. If we go into default, there is not a lot they can take from us. It gives us a two-year get out of jail free card.” He went onto explain that the new board will still be dealing with a revenue issue and that is not going away as it will continue to be a hurdle in the future.
Barr – Agreed with Stonebarger, “The position we are in is pretty clear. This buys two-years and is not a long term solution. Next board needs to start looking at a long term solution. He echoed Mr. Whitlocks concerns from Public Comments when he stated, “we need to look at areas with long response times and take care of them first to get them some relief.”
Kenny – explained that Bethel Island/Knightsen should open first.
Romick – echoed the comments and concerns tonight. “This is a life preserve for two years” and should accept it.
Grant Accepted by way of a 7-0 vote (Anderson & Frazier absent due to prior commitments).
The next meeting will occur on Sept. 10 which will likely be a marathon session as they finalize the budget.
- Kudos to Jim Mathers for writing the grant and having patience with the process. He and I had a good conversation the other day which educated me further on the grant and some of the false rumors running rampant on the conditions of the grant. He wrote it, I’ll trust him over the rumor mill. Bottom line, a lot of the requirements form a few years back have been removed which now offers protections on senior staff which was not there before.
- Minus the ECCFPD Board Members who are City Council Candidates, I give kudos to Brentwood City Council Candidates Gene Clare and Carissa Pillow for showing up to tonight’s ECCFPD Special Meeting. This was a meeting that most City Council candidates should have attended.
- Also missing in attendance was the naysayers from the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association who promised they had the best interest of the taxpayer. Accepting a $7.8 million grant you would think would gain their attention. Since June 6, this organization has been silent.
- Kudos go out to Mark Whitlock who stood up for Bethel Island. I agree 100%, Bethel Island may not get a station, but Knightsen is the next closest thing and that should be opened first due to their response times. It also covers Oakley by leaving our engine in Oakley.