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Councilman George Wangemann was the only council member Tuesday morning who voted against a federal grant that would allow the city to hire 18 new firefighters.
The City Council voted to accept a $1.92 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The grant allows the city fire department to hire 18 firefighters to staff a second ladder truck and add firefighters to understaffed engine companies across the city, according to Gainesville Fire Chief Jon Canada.
Staffing guidelines set by the National Fire Protection Association recommend that all engine companies carry four personnel. Currently, Gainesville engines carry three firefighters, Canada said.
While the majority of the council members were eager to take advantage of the grant — four of them raised their hands in favor of accepting it — Wangemann was more skeptical.
"We’re in a recession," Wangemann said. "And in my opinion, this is not the time to be adding millage to our tax rate."
The grant pays for the initial hiring costs of the firefighters, but over a five-year period, the city will gradually take on the full cost of those firefighters’ salaries and benefits.
When the grant expires, the city would pick up an approximate $900,000 annual cost to pay the salaries and the benefits of the firefighters, Canada said.
"I realize there’s $2 million on the table, but to take $2 million away from our tax paying citizens to add one more fire station when I think we’re getting along OK — adequately, if you will — leads me to believe that this is something our tax paying public cannot stand," Wangemann said. "If we’re looking to grow as a city, if we’re looking to bring more businesses, more industry to our community to help increase our revenues, which are already down, why are we adding tax burden to the tax paying citizens of this community? I have a real concern about that."
But the other council members disagreed with Wangemann. Councilman Danny Dunagan said the grant would save the city money. Mayor Myrtle Figueras nodded her head in agreement.
"Our charge as public officials is to protect the public and have public safety, and talking to the fire chief, this is a grant that we need and is going to save us some money over the long run," Dunagan said. "And with that, I’m (going to) make a motion to accept this grant."
Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Bruner seconded the motion. Councilman Robert "Bob" Hamrick voted in favor of the motion, first stating that the city’s economic situation will eventually improve.
"If we don’t pass today, certainly we can’t keep up once it does turn around," Hamrick said. "I just feel that this is an opportunity that can’t pass..."
Mayor Myrtle Figueras agreed with Hamrick and was the fourth council member to vote in favor of accepting the grant.
"I do believe in the visionary way that our council works," Figueras said. "I like to look at today, yet I also like to look at the future."
When council members took the vote, Figueras asked the council members who were in favor of accepting the grant to raise their hands.
"All in favor of providing the (fire) chief with what he needs for the moment," she said.
While all the other council members raised their hands, Wangemann responded: "I think we’ve done a pretty good job of doing that already."
The city will begin taking applications for the firefighters on Monday, Sept. 21. The application period will last until Oct. 2.