Pension costs hang over vote on $1.4M grant to hire firefighters

Pension costs hang over vote on $1.4M grant to hire firefighters

DANVILLE — In the next three weeks, Danville aldermen must make an already-controversial decision to either accept, or reject, a $1.4 million federal grant to hire six new firefighters.

Some aldermen are not convinced that hiring additional firefighters with federal dollars is the most feasible move.

The sticking point: The grant would pay about 75 percent of the annual cost of six positions for two years and 35 percent the third year.

And after that, the city is on its own.

Alderman Lloyd Randle (Ward 7) said the council must determine what hiring additional firefighters will do long-term to Danville's pension costs, which have increased each year despite the city continuing to decrease the number of firefighters.

"This is a mounting cost that's killing us," Randle said.

The department currently has 39 firefighters, including one training officer. In 2000, the city had more than 60 firefighters. By 2009, it was about 50.

Leaders of the firefighters' local union, International Association of Firefighters Local 429, have argued that personnel have been reduced to a point that it puts at risk the lives of citizens in Danville and firefighters themselves. This grant would help the department meet industry minimum standards for fire department manning.

Randle also said he will not support accepting the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) federal grant to hire firefighters if adjustments aren't made to reduce the hundreds of thousands of dollars the city pays each year in overtime in the department.

"We've got to get it figured out or I'm not going to support it," Randle said.

Firefighters made a presentation to the city council about the SAFER grant earlier this summer and told aldermen at that time that the savings to the city would come through the reduction of OT costs — budgeted at $600,000 this fiscal year.

Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said four months into the fiscal year, the fire department's overtime is running over budget, and if the pace continues, the city would end the year $200,000 over.

Adding six new firefighters would cut overtime costs from $600,000 to $100,000, department members estimated in their presentation to the council.

Danville firefighters took the initiative to apply for the federal grant, which the city must formally accept by Oct. 7, or forfeit the funds.

Firefighter Ryan Allison, who wrote the grant application, said the department may not get another chance at this federal money.

Randle and Alderman Rickey Williams Jr. (Ward 1) both said that council members who have firefighter relatives should recuse themselves from a vote on whether to accept the grant.

Three aldermen have either a son or son-in-law who serve in the department.