Grant focuses on firefighters

Newton will seek federal funds to help the city's fire department get closer to meeting national standards for fighting structure fires.

As part of the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program, the U.S. government is providing about $380 million to fire departments throughout the nation. The priorities of the funding are to provide firefighters for departments that have either laid off personnel, face the prospect of reduced staffing or seek additional firefighters to meet National Fire Protection Association standards, said Newton Fire Chief Kevin Yoder.

Newton seeks additional personnel to meet NFPA standards that require 15 firefighters responding to a fire, 90 percent of the time, Yoder said.

"In order to meet the standard, we would have to hire nine," he said.

"If we hire nine we will meet that standard 93 percent of the time."

In hopes of pursuing those nine full-time firefighters, Yoder proposed a SAFER grant application that would pay $808,318 in salaries over two years. Under the plan, the city would not be required to pay matching funds and would not be obligated to keep firefighters on board after the second year. It would be required to pay unemployment totaling $67,500 if the fire department eliminated the nine positions after the grant expired. The city would also be required to pay the cost of health examinations, uniforms and "turnout gear," Yoder said.

Newton City Council balked at bringing aboard nine new firefighters.

"If we do this, we will be obligated to half a million dollars," Council member Robert Abernethy Jr. said, arguing that after the grant ended the city would be facing $404,159 in salary expenses for the firefighters. "How many times have we chosen to cut positions? Historically speaking, we haven't exactly set a precedent for cutting firemen."

Newton Mayor Anne Stedman said previous city councils set a goal of fully staffing the city's fire department, while Yoder countered that the city previously eliminated a fire prevention educator after a one-year grant ended.

Council member Bill Lutz said that while the federal government would pay firefighter salaries, the grant isn't "free." He also said the prospect of building a new fire station for the city creates additional concerns.

"I have a little bit of a problem going with nine. Three, maybe six, but nine is an awful lot and $400,000 is a lot, too," said Council member Wayne Dellinger.

Also citing needs for a new fire station, Council member Tom Rowe moved that the city pursue grant funds for three firefighters. A reduced number of firefighters would reduce potential unemployment exposure faced by the city, said City Manager Todd Clark.

It will also reduce the city's chances of getting the grant, Yoder said.

"But it was already a reduced potential for getting the grant any way," he said.

Rowe's motion, seconded by Council member Wes Weaver, was approved with Abernethy casting the lone vote against making the grant application.