Government / Politics

City declines fire department’s request to apply for federal grant

Mayor cites concerns that the city may eventually not be able to afford the cost of firefighters hired by the grant, potentially forcing layoffs

The Hollister City Council this week declined to allow the Hollister Fire Department to apply for a federally-funded grant program that would pay a portion of firefighters' salaries before expiring in three years, which the council said could set up another scenario in which firefighters would have to be laid off.

The SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) Grant program offered to municipal fire departments through the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds three years of salary percentages — paying 75 percent for the first two years and 25 percent in the final year — with cities picking up the balance of the cost. A report presented to the council said the program is designed for cities to hire public safety personnel "without the expensive, initial cost and incrementally affords the city to absorb the firefighters' salary over three years if the city elects to do so."

The expiration of the grant and the reduction in funding is what concerned some council members, including Mayor Ignacio Velazquez, who said that when the previous round of SAFER funding expired in October 2016, the fire department was forced to lay off 12 reserve firefighters

"Last cycle, we ended up losing our reserves and were accused of laying off firefighters," the mayor said to Chief Bob Martin Del Campo, noting that he would not support applying for the grant again until the reserve program is built back up. "I can't support this. What's going to happen here is we're going to hire some people and we're going to get to the point where the two years are up and we can't afford it. I'd like to see us focus on the reserve program again, build that up, so you have the manpower you need. It's difficult to come up with those dollars and sustain it with all the things we need to do in this community."

Del Campo acknowledged that "we do need to get the reserve program up and running," to which Velazquez responded, "I need to see that program brought back, implemented and succeeding."

Councilman Karson Klauer said that if the SAFER grant were awarded and Hollister's more than $1 million in contracts to provide fire service to the county of San Benito and the city of San Juan Bautista were not renewed, that would leave a funding gap. Del Campo said that if such a scenario took place, the city could pull out of the grant program without penalty.

Del Campo said that it is his responsibility as chief to pursue any funding opportunities made available.

Velazquez reiterated his concern about the city receiving criticism if firefighters had to be laid off, saying "we have to have a better plan … I don't think this is a solution."

The resolution that would have allowed Del Campo to apply for the grant did not move forward when no council members made a motion to bring it to a vote.

Fire engine grant application authorized

In other action, the council did approve a resolution authorizing the fire department to apply for the 2017 Assistance to Firefighters Grant that would help purchase a Type 3 fire engine and the fund the purchase of shipping containers for live, controlled fire training.

Fire protection for solar project

The city renewed its contract to provide fire protection and emergency medical services to the Panoche Valley Solar project during its construction in southern San Benito County, continuing a deal it made in June 2015. As part of its environmental impact report mitigations, the project is required to have fire and medical protection during the construction of the facility. According to the city, construction is underway and expected to continue for another year. 

The agreement calls for the solar project developers to provide $353,917.33 to the fire department to fund personnel costs, overtime, fuel and vehicle maintenance. In turn, the city will provide two fire personnel at the facility Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. With the initial 18-month contract, the solar project purchased a $147,000 fire truck for the city that will remain the fire department's property when the contract expires.

Donation of surplus equipment to Mexico

The council also unanimously approved the donation of the Hollister Fire Department's non-compliant self-contained breathing apparatus equipment to fire departments in Mexico. Del Campo said that while the gear does not meet regulations in the United States, it can be refurbished and fortified for use in Mexico.

"It's recognized that instead of us taking it to the dump and throwing it in the garbage, it can have a second life," he said.

Adam Breen

Adam Breen has been a San Benito County resident since 1980 and graduated from Sacred Heart School and San Benito High School before earning a bachelor's degree from California State University, Fresno. A father of two sons, Adam has taught newspaper, English and yearbook at SBHS for the past decade, after six years as a magazine editor for Santa Clara University. He previously was editor of the Hollister Free Lance and content director for BenitoLink.