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Fire grant could cause budget issues
Federal money requirements may make furloughs difficult
Firefighters/EMTs Niles Corey, left, and Dustin Oliver prepare medical wbags for another call Friday afternoon at the Gainesville Fire Department Station No. 1 on Jesse Jewell Parkway.

Questions still surround a federal grant that allowed the city of Gainesville to hire 18 new firefighters and how it could affect the city’s furlough program.

The city manager said it’s too early to say whether furloughs will still be needed once Gainesville’s next budget year begins in July. One council member, meanwhile, said that a requirement in the grant that the fire department’s staffing stays at a minimum level could lead to all city employees being exempted from furloughs out of fairness.

In September, the Gainesville City Council voted 4-1 to accept a $1.92 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to hire 18 new firefighters. The grant allowed the fire department to shore up understaffed engine companies across the city and bring the department up from an average of three firefighters per truck to the national standard of four per truck.

Over a five-year span, the city will gradually take on the full costs of the new firefighters’ salaries and benefits.

City Councilman George Wangemann voted against the grant, saying it would lead to a tax increase in the long run.

In November, the city began its furlough program, requiring employees to take one day off without pay each month. Firefighters must take two 24-hour shifts off in six months to meet the equivalent of eight-hour-a-day workers.

The fire department has juggled the furloughs by reducing the number of people who can take days off for vacation and other personal time, but they can still affect the number of personnel manning a truck.

The language of the FEMA grant requires that the fire department stay at specified minimum staffing levels. One
interpretation is that beginning in the next fiscal year, the new firefighters can’t be furloughed, Wangemann said.

“Then we decided that this would not be fair for the rest of the department,” Wangemann said. “So we said, ‘we’re going to have to take all the firefighters off the furloughs.’ Then there was some discussion about taking everybody off of furloughs, the idea being that if you do it for one, you have to do it for everybody.”

Over a year’s time, city furloughs of one day a month save about $600,000 in the city’s approximately $25 million budget, officials said.

Gainesville City Manager Kip Padgett said officials won’t know until they get further along in the budgeting process whether furloughs will still be needed when the next fiscal year starts in July.

Padgett said more study is needed to determine whether there can be another solution to the grant’s manpower requirements.

“Not furloughing is one method, but there may be others out there we need to look at ... (such as) redirecting manpower.”

Padgett noted that furloughs are “more of a temporary solution when you have an unexpected plunge in revenues.”

“It should only be a temporary, stopgap measure,” he said.

A hold on capital projects, a hiring freeze and cuts to departmental budgets are also answers, he said.

Furloughs are, Padgett said, “just one piece of the puzzle in lowering the expenditures of the city.”

Padgett said the federal money that enabled the city to hire additional firefighters was “a good grant, but like any grant, it does come with certain guidelines, and we definitely intend to adhere to them.”

Wangemann, who doesn’t want to end furloughs before revenues bounce back, believes the grant brought some unintended consequences if city furloughs are stopped to meet its requirements.

“That seems to be a possible outcome, so that concerns me,” Wangemann said.

For his part, Gainesville Fire Chief Jon Canada said he’ll try to be flexible.

“We’ve got some guidelines we have to work within, but as long as we can work within those guidelines, we’ll do what we can to make it work,” Canada said.

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