The Baker City Council on Tuesday night tabled its discussion about whether to accept a federal grant that would help the city hire three new employees to staff fire engines and ambulances. This is a reasonable decision considering the city would need to figure out how to raise money to match the grant. But we encourage councilors to ultimately accept the money.
The grant comes with a pretty thick string, to be sure.
The city would need to come up with about $265,000 to secure the grant. And the federal money goes away after three years.
But even if the benefits are temporary, we think they justify the cost to the city.
Adding three full-time employees would allow the fire department to handle multiple emergencies in some cases without having to call in off-duty workers.
This should eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, the department’s overtime bill, which in the previous fiscal year totaled about $65,000.
The overtime savings, at least for the first two years of the grant, should nearly cover what the city needs to spend to match the federal grant.
The final year (or potentially two years, depending on when the city actually hired the firefighters) poses a greater challenge, as City Manager Fred Warner Jr. acknowledged in his report to the City Council for Tuesday’s meeting.
We’re hopeful, though, that another problem that plagued the fire department’s budget in the previous fiscal year will cease to be a problem. Last year the city hired a private company to handle ambulance billing, which brings in more than half a million dollars annually to the city’s coffers. City officials estimated the change would boost ambulance revenue by about $200,000. Instead, the city actually collected about $88,000 less.
That debacle was a major impetus for the city to propose, and the City Council to eventually approve, the monthly public safety fee that took effect July 1. It’s $3 a month per residence and $6 per business.
The city has reverted to handling its own billing, and if ambulance revenues at worst return to their previous level, then the city would have another source of money to cover the federal grant match.
Although it might be difficult for the city to afford to keep all three of the new firefighters after the federal money runs out, the city would still have gained from the deal, and not just from having a more robust emergency response system for those three years.
It’s possible that some current firefighters will retire during that period. The employees hired through the federal grant would be natural candidates to fill any vacancy that arises, which could potentially simplify the city’s recruitment process.
Although Warner emphasized that the federal grant is not directly connected to the public safety fee, we’re reminded that a couple of city councilors said this spring that they hope the city will be able to cancel the fee as soon as the end of the current fiscal year.
This should remain a priority.
From the Baker City Herald editorial board. The board consists of publisher Kari Borgen, editor Jayson Jacoby and reporter Chris Collins.