CHICO, Calif. - The Chico Fire Department has been awarded a grant that could bolster their staffing levels, but there are stipulations in it that have at least one city councilmember concerned it could back them into a corner.
In recent days, Chico firefighters have been hitting the streets petitioning business owners and the community to support a nearly $5.3 million SAFER grant from FEMA. If approved by the city, the department could use the two year grant for promotions and to hire more firefighters.
"We have all kinds of options," said John Kelso, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local No. 2734. "We can put all new firefighters on that roster, we can mix up our current staffing and have that supported by the federal grant. So this grant really has a lot more options than it has restrictions."
Put in that way and it sounds like a safe bet, but is it really?
Chico city councilmember Randall Stone isn't so sure.
"It looks like a tremendous opportunity," Stone said. "What it is doing however is tying our hands in terms of staffing levels and department funding for a minimum of two years."
According to rules attached to the grant, once the city gets the money it won't be allowed to make any cuts to the department without risk of losing the funds. So Stone is concerned if they can't make any more cuts to fire and budget issues, they'll have to cut funds to the city's other biggest department.
"The only other major place to go is police," he said. "Both of them are dealing with public safety. 80 percent of our salaries and benefits are police and fire, so you know we're going to have to hit the police department. There's just no other way to distribute those costs."
But Kelso is confident they'll be able to avoid that by enacting a bail-out clause.
"FEMA has built in those safeguards where, if it's a hardship and the city needs to make cuts, they can notify FEMA 30 days in advance and they can start a process to where there's some relief from the restrictions of the grant," he said.
The Chico City Council will take up the item at Tuesday night's meeting. The deadline to accept the grant is Monday, February 24. Word is that the council will ask the fire department to ask for a delay on accepting the grant. If that is the case, FEMA will have to agree, and there's no guarantee they will, in which case the opportunity could be lost.
Kelso and fellow firefighters hope the public will be at the city council meeting to voice their support and hear the proposal. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. at the council chambers on Main Street.