The one department getting a definite number of added jobs in the proposed fiscal year 2022 city budget is the Statesboro Fire Department, with nine new firefighter positions slated to be authorized.
As previously reported, City Manager Charles W. Penny at the April 27 City Council budget work session did not recommend funding eight patrol officer positions requested by the Statesboro Police Department. But the Police Department at that point had seven vacancies out of its authorized force of 77 officers, and Penny noted that he has an agreement with Police Chief Mike Broadhead that if the department gets to 77 officers, he can “overhire” to add several more.
Meanwhile, Fire Chief Tim Grams had requested nine more firefighter positions, and Penny backed that request during the same April 27 budget presentation. The particular reason he gave for using local funding to add those nine firefighters now – while the department pursues a federal grant for another dozen – is that this should eliminate the need for top SFD command personnel, particularly Grams and Deputy Chief Bobby Duggar, to go into burning structures.
“I told y’all about Tim fighting fire and Bobby fighting fire,” Penny said to the mayor and council members. “They’re killing me, because if something happens to our leadership, it’s not that somebody can’t take over, but we should not put ourselves in the position that our fire chief and the (deputy) fire chief are in the same fire, fighting it. So, what probably solidified this recommendation from me was the Little Lotts Creek fire.”
Phoned last week, Grams confirmed that he and Duggar both went into Building C at Little Lotts Creek Apartments as part of the firefighting effort there March 29. The blaze displaced at the time 63 residents, including 40 children, from 20 apartments and was estimated in the SFD’s report to have caused $1.15 million in property and contents losses. No serious injuries were reported.
But Penny said that Grams was hit on the head by debris while ceilings were being pulled down to check hotspots, and so was removed from the building and checked by the Emergency Medical Service.
“I’m telling y’all, we cannot do that,” Penny said to the city’s elected officials. “We’ve got to have enough people on those trucks. We’ve got (an Insurance Services Office-rated) Class 2 fire department. We’ve got to staff it so that the chief is not in there fighting fires.”
In a phone interview last week Grams confirmed Penny’s account. While wearing a helmet inside the building on March 29, Grams had been hit by a piece of ceiling material. But he said he was fine and “there was nothing to it,” and that he had informed Penny because he didn’t want him to learn what had happened by some other route, such as from social media.
For the chief and deputy chief to enter a burning structure is not something that happens on a regular basis, Grams said.
“There’s been a few times when we’ve been short-handed and we just had to do what we had to do to get the problem taken care of,” he said. “So there are occasions, but they’re not regular.”
In regard to the funding of additional positions, the Fire Department’s situation is different from the Police Department’s in a couple of ways.
First, the Statesboro Fire Department has recently applied for a more than $2 million federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant to add 12 firefighters. If approved, that grant would cover their first three years’ wages and payroll costs.
But the nine added firefighter positions that Penny recommended for the mayor and City Council to fund for the fiscal year beginning July 1 would not be in those 12. The nine could be hired whether or not the SAFER grant is approved, and if it is approved the department could then hire both the nine and the 12, for a total of 21 new firefighters.
Last year, the department was turned down for an even larger SAFER grant it applied for to add 22 firefighters.
“They said we were asking for too much,” was one thing Penny told the mayor and council about this.
Meanwhile, the city of Pooler, in Chatham County, has had success with the SAFER grant, and the Pooler fire chief recently provided Statesboro city staff members some advice on writing the new application, Penny said.
So he is hopeful that it will be successful, he said.
Fire service fund
Second, unlike the Police Department, which is included in the city’s general fund budget for revenue coming mainly from city taxes, the Statesboro Fire Department operates under a separate fire service fund.
That fund, in the proposed fiscal 2022 city budget, will receive about $1.34 million from the Bulloch County government for providing fire protection to areas outside the city limits that are within five miles of the SFD stations.
Additionally, $1.44 million from the city’s general fund,$825,000 from its water and sewer fund and $265,000 from fire line access fees are earmarked to go into the fire service fund, devoted to the SFD. Businesses and other locations that have a dedicated water line for fire protection pay the access fee, and a portion of Statesboro’s water and sewer rates charged to governmental customers that do not pay property taxes – such as Georgia Southern University – goes to the Fire Department, explained Assistant City Manager Jason Boyles.
The 2022 recommended budget shows the fire service fund with revenues of $4.48 million, including a $606,335 accumulated balance, and an equal $4.48 million in projected spending. Penny suggested that spending some of the fund balance on more firefighters instead of carrying a large balance could also improve Statesboro’s chances on the grant.
To continue paying the additional firefighters in the future, the city will need to have a further conversation with county officials about the county’s commitment to help provide these for its SFD-protected fire zone, he said.
Prior to the proposed addition of nine firefighters, the Statesboro Fire Department has an authorized force of 50 personnel, so its total staffing is a little over half the size of the Police Department’s, which is authorized for about 94 employees, 77 of whom are sworn officers.
Grams said nine added firefighters would definitely help.
“Anything that the council feels comfortable approving we certainly aren’t going to turn away,” he said. “It’s not going get our staffing level completely where it needs to be, but it certainly is a good start, and hopefully we’ll be fortunate enough to receive this SAFER, and between the two that will certainly get us to a good point.”
City Council on Tuesday set its public hearing on the fiscal 2022 budget to coincide with its next regular meeting, 5:30 p.m. May 18.