Amid concerns, Chico council approves fire grant

CHICO, Calif. - The Chico Fire Department will soon have a huge chunk of cash coming their way after the city council voted to approve a grant Tuesday night.

The two-year $5.3 million grant from FEMA is the largest awarded in California and eighth largest in the entire country. The current budget for the fire department is around $11.5 million, so the grant would effectively be an increase of more than one-third.

The department plans to use the money to hire back two firefighters lost in the last couple of years as well as hire 13 new firefighters.

That means the city will be able to staff each of its fire houses throughout the year. Recently, at least one fire station a day had been shuttered to cut costs.

As a crowd filled with firefighters showing support watched on, the city council grilled city fire officials for more than an hour about the ins-and-outs of the grant.

Although no matching funds are needed, typically a big barrier for grants, the city council raised a number of concerns about how the influx of money would impact the city in the future.

For instance, if promotions are given to current staff, the council is concerned that when the grant runs out, it'll mean they will still be on the line to pay those higher wages. Fire officials said they would promote with the understanding that promotions would likely be revoked when the grant money runs out.

Additionally, the grant states that the city must maintain staffing levels throughout the two-year term, meaning if there's a budget crisis and cuts would loom, the city would have to turn to other departments like police and parks. Officials informed the council that a waiver could be applied for, one that FEMA has allegedly told them is rather easily approved.

Eventually, the city council voted 6-1 in favor of approving the grant.

The lone dissenter, Councilmember Randall Stone, said he was against approval because of "unknown implications" and in a text to KRCR said it's a decision he's "happy to be on the losing end of."

Stone also said he was happy that interim Fire Chief Keith Carter and staff came prepared for the proposal and ready with answers for the council's many concerns.

"There's still lots of concerns, but at least a good significant chunk of our questions were answered regarding the impact to the fire department in the short term and long term impacts," Stone said. "But still, $5.3 million, it's so nice and it's right there and you want so much to say, absolutely, this makes total sense, but you got to look at the total impact on the entire city."

During the proposal, Councilmember Ann Schwab said "this is an opportunity to make us whole again."

Fire officials said at the meeting they've already been in touch with the city Human Resources Department and are ready to start the hiring process as soon as possible.

After the new hires are brought on they'll go through an eight week training period before starting work.

That means the city should see the extra staffing in the next three to four months.

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