Money for SJ firefighters has strings attached

February 11, 2011 6:40:52 PM PST
At first glance it looks like a windfall, almost $15 million. That is how much a FEMA grant announced Friday awards the city of San Jose to help rehire 49 firefighters laid off in August as part of the city's historic budget cuts.

In all, FEMA handed out 58 grants totaling $115 million nationwide for a program called SAFER which stands for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response. Nine such grants were distributed in California and San Jose got by far the largest of those grants -- $14.9 million.

Mayor Chuck Reed says the news is great. He said, "Having more money in the pot always makes things easier."

In this case however, there is a "but." The money comes with strings attached. The terms of using the grant money require any new hires to stay on the job for at least two years, which means they can't be laid off. Given the city's $110 million budget shortfall this year, on top of a $118 million budget shortfall last year, there is concern if the city took the money, it would be in a difficult position to make layoffs in other departments to protect firefighters.

Reed said the union will have to make concession to put the grant money to work.

"We'll certainly need a 10 percent pay cut in the way of concessions," he said. "The question is whether we will need more, in order to make this happen to hire firefighters and not lay off somebody else to cover the cost."

The head of the Firefighter's Union Local 230 talked to ABC7 News by phone.

"We are doing our part and doing the right thing," President Jeff Welch said.

Welch said he wants the city to be in a position to take advantage of the grant money and rehire the laid off firefighters, but said it is not appropriate to elaborate at this point in the negotiation process. Last year, firefighters refused to take the 10 percent pay and benefit cut the mayor demanded which resulted in unprecedented layoffs.

Fire Chief William McDonald said everybody worked together to get the grant application to the federal government and it was approved because there is a real need in the city to increase staffing levels. McDonald said the layoffs have translated into an average of 179 officers on duty at any given shift versus 203 last year.

"There's times when we can't get there quick enough and our capacity is not anywhere near what it was before, so we really need to put more firefighters back on the street," McDonald said.

At this point all sides say they are eager to find a solution that will allow the city to accept the grant money, but the mayor admits there is a possibility that if concessions aren't made or if the government does not waive the "two year no layoff" requirement, there is the possibility the city will have to say thanks but no thanks to the grant money.


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