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Federal grant could restore fire dept. jobs

LOCKPORT – The city Fire Board voted unanimously Monday to endorse the idea of applying for federal grant money to restore some of the city’s laid-off firefighters.

The Common Council will discuss the matter Wednesday, and Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey seemed open to the idea. “We would save on overtime if we staffed more,” she said.

In October, the city laid off six firefighters to save money on overtime, but that was when the city had a minimum staffing level of eight firefighters per shift. The city cut that figure to six in mid-September.

“We staff eight (per shift),” McCaffrey said. “We would save on overtime if we staffed more.”

That presumes the city would stick with the six-man minimum. Under the current firefighters union contract, the department is divided into four platoons, two of which work each day. If a platoon can’t muster the minimum because of vacations, sick time or any other reason, members of other platoons are called in and paid time-and-a-half for the entire shift.

Last year, with a nine-man minimum in effect until Sept. 15, the city rang up $706,478 in Fire Department overtime, by far a record figure, which was almost $200,000 more than the city had budgeted for 2014.

Almost all of that came during the summer, the prime vacation period. For this year, the fire overtime budget is only $300,000.

Interim Fire Chief Patrick K. Brady said firefighter funding grants have been available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency since 2003, but Lockport has never applied because of the strings attached.

The grants pay the full cost of salaries, benefits and pensions for two years. FEMA previously required that the recipients had to promise to keep the newly hired firefighters on the payroll after the two years were up, and also had to promise not to lay off any other firefighters during the two years.

Brady said FEMA seems to have realized that those restrictions were discouraging applications for the grant money, and he says those have been dropped.

There was another rule that FEMA has changed, McCaffrey said: “There is no longer a cash match for the city.” In other words, the positions would be 100 percent federally funded for two years. After that, it would be up to the city to decide whether to keep them.

“Over the next couple of years, there could be six or seven guys retiring,” said Firefighter Sam Oakes, vice president of the Lockport Professional Fire Fighters Association.

City Clerk Richelle J. Pasceri said under the previous grant rules, “If seven people retire, you have to fill all those positions (in addition to the new hires).”

Brady said that might not be true, and he will double-check that and report to the Council Wednesday.

The deadline to apply for the SAFER grant, as FEMA calls it, is March 6. If the city is successful, “You could bring those layoffs back during our peak period of overtime,” said Peter P. Robinson, who was re-elected Fire Board president Monday.

Brady said a grant would let the city to bring back some of the laid-off men “sooner than we would with attrition.”

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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