Grant Would Enable W.Va. City to Hire More Paramedics

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — More firefighters could be put on the streets under a federal grant Charleston City Council members unanimously voted to pursue Tuesday.

City Manager David Molgaard will apply for the federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant by the end of the week. The grant is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The city would be able to hire nine firefighters if the grant is approved. This would bring the force up to 180 positions, and would add badly needed paramedics to the ranks, Fire Chief Chuck Overstreet said.

The firefighters would be cross-trained as paramedics.

The grant would cover salaries, benefits, and pension payments for the firefighters for two years, Molgaard said. The city has budgeted for 60 paramedics, but currently only has 39, he said.

“We need to get that number back up to staff our four ambulances,” Molgaard told members of the finance committee.

The grant doesn’t require a local match and expires after two years.

That means the city might have to lay off firefighters after the grant expires. City leaders could also opt to eliminate positions by attrition.

But, the city could opt to keep the force at 180 if they decided to add a fifth ambulance to the department, Molgaard said.

“But, this buys us time and gets paramedics into the ranks,” Molgaard said.

Molgaard also said ongoing litigation between the department and the city could affect the grant. The city has asked a federal judge for a declaratory judgment concerning payment of overtime wages to firefighters.

The city recalculated the way overtime wages are paid to firefighters in order to curtail costs. But, city leaders opted to ask a judge for a declaratory judgment in anticipation of a lawsuit by firefighters.

Mayor Danny Jones said a lawsuit could hurt the city’s chances of getting the grant.

Molgaard said the city could end up refusing the grant, even if it is approved by the federal agency, if the litigation is not resolved. This would be because the city could end up paying firefighters back wages for overtime if the court ruled in the first responders’ favor.

“We couldn’t risk hiring nine people and then have to pay them at the additional (overtime) level and back wages,” Molgaard said.

Jones and Molgaard advised council to authorize the city manager to seek the grant in case the litigation is resolved before it is awarded. Jones said city leaders could deal with the overtime wages once the issue is decided in the courts.

Molgaard said he has not finalized the exact amount he will request. The application is due this Friday.

Overstreet said he was happy to see city leaders apply for the funds. If the city receives the funds, Overstreet will be able to man two engine companies that have been placed out of service due to cuts in the department.

An engine company at Cora Street station on the West Side has been placed out of service, as has an engine company at the Bridge Road station.

“This is a God send if we can get it,” Overstreet said about the grant.

Myron Boggess, president of the Charleston Professional Firefighters Association, was also pleased.

“I think it’s great,” he said.

When asked what he thought about the possibility of having to lay the nine firefighters off after two years, Boggess said he wasn’t looking that far down the road.

“I don’t want to look two years down the road,” he said. “I want to look at tomorrow and getting those firefighters back on the streets.”

Boggess said the federal agency would be awarding a total of $742 million to departments all over the country this year. The grant should be awarded by this summer.

“I feel good about our chances for getting this grant,” Boggess said.

Council members also got a first look at the upcoming fiscal year’s budget, which would take effect July 1. The proposed budget is $84 million, an increase over the current $81.9 million.

A budget hearing has been scheduled for 6 p.m. next Tuesday.

The hearing will be held in the third floor conference room at City Hall.

The proposed budget anticipates a $2.16 million increase in property tax revenue for the upcoming fiscal year and a $1.2 million increase in revenue from business and occupation taxes.

However, the budget also anticipates a $350,100 decrease in revenue generated by the city’s hotel/motel tax and a $287,715 decrease in funds from ambulance fees.

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