Warren set $100K aside for fire cuts

WARREN – The city has set aside $100,000 in its 2013 budget to pay unemployment benefits to 14 firefighters who may be laid off due the city not receiving the 2013 Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (S.A.F.E.R.) grant.

The city has 69 firefighters on the force, including the grant employees. The department has an authorized strength of 84 firefighters. Still, some officials are questioning whether the city needs as many firefighters going forward.

An extension given to Warren by the federal government in December allowed it to retain the S.A.F.E.R. firefighters with money made available to it with the $4.9 million 2010 grant. That grant will end in May.

The city last week learned that its latest application for the grant was rejected.

Safety-Service Director Enzo Cantalamessa said the city was not told why its bid was not accepted.

“We are attempting to find out specific reasons why our application was rejected,” he said. “We will incorporate changes in the next application to give us a better opportunity to be selected for another award.”

Each S.A.F.E.R. firefighter earns about $35,600 a year in salary and $30,500 in benefits, according to City Auditor David Griffing.

If the city tries to retain the 14 positions, the combined salaries and benefits would cost approximately $925,400.

The city paid $100,397 in unemployment in 2009 when it had 14 firefighters laid off due to budget constraints, Griffing said.

“The amount of unemployment an employee receives is based on his or her salary, family size and other factors,” Griffing said. “In 2009, the amount of unemployment ranged from $288 per week to $503 per week, averaging about $400 per week in unemployment.”

Prior to hiring firefighters using the grant money in 2011, the city had 56 firefighters, according to Griffing.

Griffing said the city budgeted for 55 firefighters for 2013.

Councilwoman Helen Rucker, D-at large, questioned whether the city should try to keep all of the S.A.F.E.R. firefighters or take a serious look at what the city’s needs are today.

“I voted to apply for the S.A.F.E.R. grants when they were originally presented to council because I was assured by the fire department’s union president the firefighters were aware the grant was for three years,” Rucker said. “I’m hoping we can find a way to keep as many as we can, but only what we can afford. I don’t know if retirements will help.”

Rucker said this may be an opportunity for the administration to look at the authorized strength of the department.

“In Lorain, there is one firefighter for every 700 residents in the city,” Rucker said. “We have one firefighter for every 58 residents.”

Rucker said changes in the city’s population and, in the next two years, the number of vacant and abandoned houses may reduce the need for so many firefighters.

Councilman Eddie Colbert, D-7th Ward, agrees the city may not need 75 firefighters, but adds it needs to have more than 55.

Colbert said he has been told the city will be able to maintain the three fire stations with only 55 firefighters. However, he adds that would be a bare minimum number of firefighters needed. It does not allow for anyone to get sick or take vacation days.

“I think we would need about 65 firefighters to ensure the safety of residents and the safety of our firefighters,” Colbert said.