$2.3 million grant to hire firefighters needs scrutiny

While it may seem like a no-brainer for the City Council to
accept $2.3 million in


federal grant money to rehire six firefighter positions, that’s
hardly the case.
While it may seem like a no-brainer for the City Council to accept $2.3 million in “free” federal grant money to rehire six firefighter positions, that’s hardly the case. Questions abound, and all of them should be thoroughly vetted before the Council accepts the money.

This grant does not have heavy strings. Gilroy could hire six firefighters for two years, then lay those same firefighters off. The astounding fact that it costs our city more than $1 million each year to employ six firefighters is a topic for another day.

The first question is: Does Gilroy really need to rehire six firefighter positions? The Council needs to get into micro manager mode to fully understand the ins and outs of the answers to this basic question, because if it doesn’t work out they will be taking all the heat.

The city has been forced in the last budget sequence to lay off six firefighter positions and has subsequently been through a difficult round of contract negotiations which resulted, at long last, in a significant contract concession. That concession should have been made months, if not years, ago. Gilroy is back to the reasonable reality of three firefighters per engine rather than four per engine. What happens if the city rehires the six positions? Going back to the unreasonable four-per-engine standard and the burdensome associated costs should not be an option.

Secondly, the claim that rehiring the six positions will save overtime dollars should be thoroughly evaluated. Moreover, that OT management plan should be in writing, and a city administrator report to the City Council on firefighter overtime costs should be made every three months during the duration of the grant. It would be a colossal blunder if overtime costs were not contained to a bare minimum.

Beyond that, the city should investigate whether the six could be hired as contract, or temporary, personnel. It must be crystal clear that the money for these positions is only available for two years. If the city proceeds, and cannot make the hires as contract personnel, then it might be wise to work out a Memorandum of Understanding with the firefighter’s union so that in two years there are no misunderstandings if the six positions have to be jettisoned again.

Fire Chief Dale Foster says his plan is to hire off a list of laid-off firefighters who have been let go from agencies around the state. That could save money in terms of training and certainly would add experience, but it also could be more costly depending on the level a “transferring” firefighter comes in at. Again, another series of questions that the Council needs answered.

Lastly, the Council should be careful not to drink the Kool-Aid. If the argument to rehire the positions is, “Don’t worry, the economy will be better in two years …” the Council should run away from the cash. Hopefully, the economy will be better. But if the country has learned anything during the economic meltdown it’s this: Far better to be fiscally conservative now, rather than pay a heavy price later.

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