April 20, 2014

Elyria
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SAFER grant helps Elyria keep firefighters

The Elyria Fire Department will once again be the recipient of a multimillion dollar federal grant, which temporarily will save the jobs of 23 young firefighters who faced layoff without the infusion of cash.

The city received word Wednesday afternoon that it had been awarded $3.69 million through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s SAFER grant program.

Mayor Holly Brinda said she received unofficial confirmation the city had received the grant Wednesday morning. She anticipates receiving formal acknowledgement from FEMA later this week.

Brinda said she has been in constant contact with U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Copley Township, who worked tirelessly lobbying for Elyria. Sutton called the funding “critical” in saving the nearly two dozen jobs.

“Our first priority should be ensuring the safety and security of our constituents; delivering these funds and protecting these jobs is the best way we can keep our neighborhoods safe for years to come,” Sutton said in a statement.

Sutton’s lobbying efforts include a letter she wrote to Elizabeth Harman, the assistant administrator of the Grants Program at FEMA. In the letter, Sutton stressed that “without a SAFER grant, Elyria officials would be forced to layoff 23 firefighters,” and that “with such a reduction in staffing, it would be nearly impossible for the fire department to meet response times as mandated by the National Fire Protection Association.”

Fire Chief Richard Benton said he could not thank Sutton enough for fighting for Elyria. The grant was desperately needed money, he said.

“After fighting hard to help Elyria secure a SAFER grant in 2009, Sutton did not stop there,” he said. “She continued to monitor the financial hardships Elyria was going through and graciously offered her support. Many in Elyria had hoped the two-year grant would give us time to recuperate from the recession, but unfortunately it has been a much slower process than expected.”

This newer grant nearly matches in size a $3.7 million grant the Fire Department received in 2009 that paved the way for the hiring of 23 firefighters.

At the time, the department was functioning with just 52 firefighters and sometimes operating out of one fire station. The grant allowed it to function at a steady 75 firefighters and keep three fire stations open nearly every day.

However, keeping that level of service in the future would be nearly impossible without the award of the new grant, as the city’s general fund can’t pick up the pay for those firefighters. The previous grant was due to expire in September.

“We hired these guys and from day one told them their employment was the result of a grant and dependent on the city’s financial circumstances at the conclusion of the grant,” Benton said. “I did not want to be in a position where I had to lay off a third of my department, but it was a real possibility.”

Still, city officials said the grant does not negate the need for a funding strategy in the Fire Department.

“This by no means solves our long-term funding issues in the city, but this does bring a sense of immediate relief,” Brinda said. “We are beyond pleased because this will allow us to continue to provide services in a way that is safer for both the city and its residents.”

Living from federal grant to federal grant is not a responsible way to run the Fire Department, said Councilman Vic Stewart, D-at large, and head of the Finance Committee.

“There will be a day when the SAFER grant is not there; when other cities and departments will have a greater need than ours,” he said. “This is merely a stopgap, and we need to use this time to come up with our own funding strategies for the Fire Department.”

Stewart said in the interim, the city should review the fire audit as well as gleam as much new information as it can from the performance audit the state is conducting. Those two documents can put Elyria on the path to self-sufficiency beyond the SAFER grant, he said.

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.