ROY MAYNARD, email@example.com
The Tyler City Council turned down a federal grant that would have helped it hire an additional 12 firefighters, but which would have come with a funding obligation on the city’s part of nearly $1 million.
In council chambers packed with firefighters, members of the council listened to the head of the Tyler Professional Fire Fighters Association, the AFL-CIO-affiliated firefighter’s group, as he made the case for accepting the grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“The city of Tyler has grown tremendously over the last few decades,” said Justin Dominy, president of IAFF Local 883. “The resources of the department have been shifted numerous times in an attempt to cover for shortfalls.”
He said currently, Tyler fire engines typically roll out with three firefighters aboard. That limits their effectiveness, he said, and many studies say that four firefighters is the ideal crew size.
And that’s why Tyler’s new fire chief, David Coble, went out for the grant and urged the council to accept it.
But the $1.58 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant would require significant matching funds from the city during tight budget times.
That’s an obligation of nearly $1 million over the three-year term of the grant - at a time when the city budget is tight. The city has been under a hiring freeze for all but essential positions since sales tax revenues, a large part of the city's budget, started falling three years ago.
“We’re seeing a decline in sales tax,” Mayor Martin Heines said. “That creates a huge pause for us up here, because that’s how we’ve grown our budget over the years. We raised the property tax rate this year, and if sales taxes don’t come back we could be looking at raising the rate again next year just to maintain current staffing levels.
Heines said that soon, he’ll be out of office due to term limits.
“At the point the next mayor comes in, they could be looking at a 12 to 13 percent property tax increase just to fund the SAFER grant,” Heines said. “That’s a burden a current mayor shouldn’t be placing on a future mayor.”
Added council member John Nix, “My issue is the commitment I made to all employees to work in future years to give raises and (better) health insurance. This would go against that commitment.”
Council member Darryl Bowdre said that by accepting the grant, the city could put itself in an untenable position.
“The last thing I want to do is to accept this grant and at the end of three years, have to lay off 12 firefighters because we can’t afford them,” he said. “I’m just not comfortable with committing future councils and mayors to this expenditure.”
The proposed grant would have taken staffing from the current 156 authorized firefighter positions to 168.
The grant would have covered 75 percent of the cost for the first and second years. FEMA would have paid $640,998 each year, while the city would have been responsible for $213,666 each year.
In the third year, the city would have been responsible for 35 percent of the total, or $555,532 of the $854,664 yearly cost. The total for the city would be $982,864 over the three years.