September 18, 2014

Elyria
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Elyria to seek grant for firefighters

ELYRIA —  The City Council gave Mayor Bill Grace the green light Thursday to apply for a federal grant to help hire 10 firefighters, but neither Council nor the mayor know if the city will accept the helping hand if it is awarded to the city.The problem is that the city would have to beef up its daily minimum manpower from 14 to 18 firefighters per shift, which could add up to even more overtime — the reason the mayor lowered the manpower number to begin with.

Council decided to debate the finer points later because the deadline for applying is 5 p.m. today.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Councilman Victor Stewart, D-at large, said afterward.

The first year, the federal government would pay $379,500 of the $654,542 cost for the 10 firefighters. After five years, the city would bear the entire yearly cost of $736,694.

Bonnie Ivancic, D-4th Ward, asked if the vote committed Council to accepting the grant. Law Director Terry “Pete’’ Shilling assured her it did not. That decision would rest with Grace, he said.

Fire Chief John Zielinski expressed gratitude for the vote.

“The city will be safer, and that’s why they call it the Safer Grant,” Zielinski said.

After the meeting, Grace said there’s a lot of math to do — such as determining whether the city would be able to afford the local share and additional overtime that would go with maintaining a force of 18 firefighters per shift.

Once vacation, sick time and other contractual requirements are taken into account, Zielinski said, it requires 25 firefighters per shift to have 18 at work at any time.

Asked if he would be pressured to accept the grant if it is approved, Grace answered: “The pressure on me is to make the right decision in the city’s best interest.”

Fire Capt. Joseph Pronesti on Thursday showed Council requirements from the National Firefighters Protection Agency that indicate 17 firefighters are needed per shift to provide adequate protection to citizens and firefighters. The agency does not pro rate that level based on population, he said.

“This was created because of lack of manpower at incidents around the country caused death of firefighters,” Pronesti said.

Pronesti said he spoke with three experts about the manpower requirements that would come with accepting the grant and they told him the federal government does not want to see a precipitous drop if firefighters retire and are not replaced.

“You don’t want to see the city go from 75 (firefighters) to 70 to 65 in a year and a half,” Pronesti said. “They will come after you.”

This year, the city required a minimum of 17 firefighters per shift until Monday when Grace cut the minimum to 14, saying revenue is down and the city can’t afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime it cost to maintain that level.
Council asked city Auditor Ted Pileski what future revenues would be, and Pileski said he can’t make predictions very far in advance.

“I forecast one year at a time — three or four years from now, I can’t tell you what the economy is — whether we have more jobs or less jobs,” Pileski said.

One thing is sure — the economy is tough and people don’t want new taxes, said Finance Committee Chairman Forrest Bullocks, D-2nd Ward.

“Oh boy, no,” Bullocks said of the chances a new tax would pass.

Meanwhile, firefighters picketed Thursday on the sidewalk near Ely Square during the weekly lunchtime concert. They were asked to stay off the park grounds by Assistant Safety Service Director Jim Hutchson, who said no group distributing literature is allowed to do so in the park because the pamphlets generally end up on the ground.

Contact Cindy Leise at 653-6250 or cleise@chroniclet.com.