Girard rejects federal grant that would have hired firefighters

GIRARD — The city’s fire chief was hoping to use a $281,247 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to add three firefighters, but Mayor James Melfi has refused the grant because he said its cost is too high.

Girard fire Chief Kenneth Bornemiss said he was informed Sept. 14 of the city being awarded the grant and approval was needed from the administration within 30 days, which is Sunday. Bornemiss said at Tuesday’s council meeting he hoped to receive the administration’s approval to bolster the department’s ranks and eliminate overtime.

FEMA awarded the fire department the $281,247 Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant to hire three additional full-time firefighters / paramedics. The grant would have run March 2019 to March 2022.

Bornemiss said the matching grant would cost the city $38,000 the first and second year and $98,816, which is a 65 percent match, the third year.

Melfi said a review of the grant shows many “significant costs” involved, including after the grant ends in three years. He said a city ordinance sets the staffing level at the fire department at 12 full-time firefighters and one chief.

Bornemiss said the department has 10 full-time firefighters, two captains, a chief and 14 part-time firefighters.

Melfi said if the grant was to be used for replacing retiring firefighters, he believes the administration would have supported it, but they would not support it for increasing manpower.

Melfi said the current staffing at the fire department has been in place since 2001, and the department meets safety compliance standards.

“There have been no safety problems. We are comfortable with the manpower we have. If there is an opportunity to save money, then we always look to go forward with that. That has yet to be determined,” Melfi said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Bornemiss introduced two new full-time firefighters / paramedics, Tom Cantola and Joe Danko. Danko fills an opening with the retirement in August of Sal Ponzio, who served 33 years and was a captain for 25 years.

Melfi said the two new firefighters bring the staffing to ideal levels.

Had the administration approved the grant, city council would have had to take action since it would have increased the manpower above what the city’s ordinance mandates.

Speaking to council members during the meeting, firefighter Brian Pearson said, “Doing this will guarantee our daily staffing will be at least four, which is an important number based on studies by the National Fire Protection Association staffing standards.”

Pearson said sometimes there are only three on staff at one time.

He told council that using the grant to increase staffing levels will save money in the long run because the department can cut overtime costs. He said overtime at the fire department has been $140,000 a year and this year is budgeted at $225,000.

Bornemiss said a promotional exam will be given to decide who will be appointed as a new captain to replace Ponzio. The chief also reported he is meeting with a compliance officer Nov. 8 for the Public Employee Risk Reduction program, which will review factors such as staffing levels and where gear is stored.