ATLANTIC CITY — Citing fiscal responsibility, the state prevented the city’s Fire Department from applying for a federal grant most often used for new hires, but the head of the professional firefighters union said it may actually cost taxpayers more in the long run.
The state Department of Community Affairs said that, under its direction, the city would not be applying for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant. The deadline to apply was 5 p.m. Friday.
“While applying for a federal grant sounds good in the short term, it doesn’t make financial sense for a couple reasons,” DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan wrote in email Friday.
While the federal government covers a percentage of the cost for new hires — 75 percent for two years and 35 percent in the third year — the municipality is responsible for the remainder each year, additional resources Ryan said “aren’t in the city’s budget.”
“After years of severe financial distress, Atlantic City is finally on a fiscally sound path and we are doing our due diligence for the city and its taxpayers to keep it there,” the DCA spokeswoman said.
Ryan also stated that SAFER grants do not cover health care and pension obligations, “which accrue significantly over time.” However, the Notice of Funding Opportunity issued by the Department of Homeland Security states that “hiring of firefighter grants provide fire departments with funds to pay new firefighter salaries and benefits, exclusive of overtime.”
John Varallo Jr., president of Local 198 of the firefighters’ union, said the grants save taxpayers money, citing the more than $41 million the Fire Department has received from the federal government since 2009. He said the reason the Fire Department sought the grant this time around was to offset the cost to the city of hiring new employees when a wave of current members retire.
“Even if you went with a conservative number (of retirements and hires), we still would have saved money,” Varallo said Monday. “The taxpayers would have ended up back-filling those positions with younger guys, would have been able to keep the same level of service and it would have been at a reduced cost to the taxpayer. So, it was really a no-brainer.”
Both the mayor and City Council supported the firefighters’ application for the SAFER grant, with the governing body unanimously voicing its approval at April’s public meeting.
“I’m extremely disappointed in the State of New Jersey for not allowing our Fire Department to move forward with the SAFER grant,” City Council President Marty Small said Monday.
The Atlantic City Fire Department had already been the target of fiscal cuts following the state takeover of the resort in 2016. A Superior Court judged ruled in October to allow a reduction of the number of citywide firefighters to a minimum of 180, although the state had sought to decrease the number to 145.
We all know the incredibly positive things happening in Atlantic City, but to maintain that …
Varallo said the judge’s minimum is a “bare-bones department” and did not account for new variables, such as the re-opening of two casino-hotels, the Stockton University campus or the 250-unit housing complex in the South Inlet.
Currently, the Fire Department staffs its six stations with 191 employees, 167 of whom are active firefighters and 10 of whom are on injury leave. Minimum manning numbers suggested by the National Fire Protection Association, NFPA, include a minimum of four firefighters on duty for each piece of apparatus in a station.
City officials had hoped that when Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, took office in January, the administration would take a more favorable approach to managing the city. Murphy announced April 16 that he would be removing former Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s designee, attorney Jeff Chiesa, within 30 days.
A request for comment from the Governor’s Office was not returned on Monday.
Mayor Frank Gilliam said the state’s decision was “very unfortunate.”
“The Atlantic City Fire Department has been raked through the coals by the prior state administration,” Gilliam said. “Hopefully, with the new law firm and the new state administration, our firefighters will be treated with more dignity and respect for the great job they do for our city.”
Varallo said he hopes “cooler heads will prevail” in upcoming conversations with the state.
“Hopefully, they realize the didn’t make the best decision,” he said. He later added, “This is something that can get done in a day” if all sides are willing to negotiate in good faith.