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Date last updated: Thursday, August 30, 6:16 PST
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SAFER grant to add 15 firefighters to Colo department
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Colorado Springs Fire Department is counting on attrition and possible future grants to help pay the ongoing salaries of 15 firefighters who will initially be paid by federal grant funds.
If that doesn't work, the newest members of the department might not be there for long, according to the department.
The grant that the department announced Monday that it will accept is so controversial that some cities are turning down millions of dollars. One local fire chief, whose agency received similar money in 2006, said he'd give pause before applying again.
The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide the city with about $2 million over two years to pay for the 15 firefighters. After that, the department must come up with the salary money.
Sunny Smaldino, fire department spokeswoman, said that after the grant money is gone, the department hopes to keep on the new firefighters. Their salary may be paid through attrition of other firefighters, such as through retirement, or through another possible grant. If those funding sources don't come through, some of the firefighters may be let go starting with the last hired, she said.
The department plans to use the firefighters at Fire Station 21, which is scheduled to be completed in 2013 in northeast Colorado Springs. The 15 firefighters mean the station will be fully staffed and the fire department, as a whole, will meet minimum staffing levels.
"That's exciting, to get those positions filled," she said.
The next fire academy is scheduled for February 2013 and the firefighters should be on the line in time for the station's opening that summer.
Similar SAFER grants were awarded to Black Forest Fire/Rescue and the Falcon Fire Protection districts in 2006.
Their grants, which lasted for five years, provided each department the money to pay for six firefighters. Trent Harwig, chief of the Falcon department, said the departments were supposed to slowly take over the salary funding over the five-year period.
At the time, it seemed like a great idea, he said. Property taxes based on home values, which fund both fire districts, had been rising for years and the expectation was that they would continue.
"Great concept - worked perfect for us for three years. And then in the fourth year, we were notified our assessed value fell off a cliff," Harwig said in a Gazette interview in 2011.
Both agencies asked voters in November 2011 for a mill levy override, warning that if they didn't pass, they would have to lay off the newly-hired firefighters and cut services the communities had come to depend on. Both communities passed the overrides.
Now, Harwig said, the grant covers full salary funding for a smaller amount of time. With a structure like that, he's not planning on applying for another SAFER grant anytime soon.
"Unless we think that we will be in a position to pay for them (firefighters) in that third year, we won't apply for one because it wouldn't make sense," he said. "Right now, we can't say that's possible.
"There's been a lot of metropolitan areas that have ultimately declined the grants because they are uncertain of where they will be," he said. "It's a risk game, I guess, of some degree. If it all works out, the risk is worth it."
One of the largest 2011 grant awards went to Taylor, Mich. The city was offered an $8.1 million grant to bring back 32 laid-off firefighters, according to the News Herald in Southgate, Mich. The city's mayor turned down the grant in fear that the city couldn't sustain the funding after it ended. He was taken to court by the city council and was ordered by a judge to accept the grant.
Rejected grants include $600,000 to Lincoln Park, Mich., $720,000 to Southington, Conn., and $2.1 million to Danbury, Conn.
Colorado Springs isn't at risk as much as some other departments, Harwig said. The city fire department is funded through sales tax, rather than property tax like many rural districts. In a troubled economy the sales taxes will bounce back before property taxes, Harwig said.
"If they have a plan in place, and I'm sure they do, then it makes perfect sense," Harwig said. "It will be good for the city to get it but there is always that funding down the line they need to be aware of. It's not just a two-year deal. It's forever."
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