Grant will help maintain Tacoma firefighter staffing

Extra money will allow hiring to replace retirees, but it is not enough to add more positions or open closed station

Staff writerJanuary 31, 2014 

A $3.4 million federal grant will help reduce the financial strain of hiring 20 new firefighters to replace retirees at the Tacoma Fire Department.

Tacoma Budget Officer Tadd Wille said city officials had committed to maintaining fire staffing levels going into the next two-year budget that begins next January. The department lost 30 positions the last time the city wrote a budget, in late 2012.

The latest federal grant will help the city keep that promise by providing another source of money to pay firefighters, taking some pressure off the general fund and helping to reduce the city’s projected shortfall in 2015-16.

The new firefighters will replace retirees who have left the department since the beginning of 2013. The department has left some spots vacant as a way to save more money in the current budget, said Fire Department spokesman Joe Meinecke.

The grant will also help the city absorb the loss of other fire funding. In June, a $7.7 million, two-year grant that pays for 37 firefighter positions expires. The city has committed to continue paying for those positions through the end of the year, Meinecke said.

The older grant helped save jobs during the last budget process. It is called the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER grant, which is administered by the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The new, $3.4 million grant, is from the same source.

“We are able to utilize this new grant funding to maintain our level of service,” Wille said.

In 2012, the city cut $11 million from the Fire Department in the 2013-14 budget, removing 30 firefighters from the city’s payroll, mostly through retirement buyouts. The city also reduced staffing at an East Side fire station and shuttered a fire station on the Tideflats.

“The grant allows us to hire new firefighters, but does not add new firefighter positions or expand (services),” said Fire Chief Jim Duggan in a news release. “While the grant does not provide funding to re-open the station that was closed as part of the 2013-14 budget process, it is a significant step toward maintaining our current staffing levels into the 2015-16 biennium.”

Last year, the city convened a committee dedicated to reducing the projected $26 million shortfall for the 2015-16 budget process.

The group, called the Fiscal Sustainability Task Force, said the city should continue to seek grants to help pay for police and firefighter salaries. It also suggested the city make cuts in the Fire Department that do not affect public safety.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542 kate.martin@ thenewstribune.com @KateReports

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