CALEDONIA — The Village Board on Tuesday denied a request from the Caledonia Fire Department to apply for a grant that potentially could have helped fund the addition of six firefighters to its staff.
Instead of authorizing the department’s application for a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response — or SAFER — grant, the village trustees agreed to create an ad hoc committee to look into various options for financing and staffing at the department. The committee would plan to make recommendations for the 2020 village budgeting process.
The department has 39 firefighters, and department leaders would like to eventually add 18 more. The department never has the 15 firefighters on duty to respond to a structure fire, per National Fire Protection Association standards, and must rely on neighboring departments for help in those instances.
Fire Chief Richard Roeder and Battalion Chief Jeff Henningfeld requested approval to apply for the grant during a March 4 meeting, but were asked to come back on Tuesday with more information on the cost of the new hires to the village.
The grant, if awarded, would have funded 70 percent of the wages/benefits for new hires in the first two years, and then 35 percent in the third year. The village would have to fund all costs after that.
Henningfeld told the board on Tuesday that the costs to the village for the hires would be $152,858 in the first year, $157,398 in the second year, $400,000 in the third year and more than $600,000 per year after that.
Village Trustee Fran Martin said that if the board had voted to approve the grant application on Tuesday, it was essentially approving a big budget increase four years out.
“To me, that’s what we’re voting on,” Martin said. “We’re committing, I think, to $600,000 a year four years from now.”
She did not think the board had sufficient information or time to commit to that, as the SAFER application is due March 22.
Trustee Kevin Wanggaard said that although he wasn’t advocating for it, the village could decide to not keep the additional firefighters on staff after the third year if it couldn’t find the money to pay them. Hiring employees and then firing them when the grant money runs out is a bad way to do business, answered Trustee Dave Prott.
Trustee Lee Wishau suggested the board do some long-term planning and look at all its options before making any decisions. He also asked why staffing at the Fire Department was not discussed at budget time.
“At budget time I did request more personnel, and at budget time you guys said ‘it’s not feasible.’ ” Roeder said.
The chief said that at that time the board told him to come back and ask for more personnel by using the SAFER grant.
After the meeting, Roeder declined to comment on the board’s decision to deny the grant application request.
Other staffing, funding options
One option the village could consider for increased funding for both the Caledonia fire and police departments is going to referendum and ask the citizens for more money, Roeder said.
“That provides the citizens of the village to speak up and say, ‘Yes, we’ll fund this,’ ” he said.
Another option for additional revenue is an increase in ambulance fees. Henningfield suggested increasing fees by about 20 percent. Current fees were set in 2014, and the department’s own billing company said it is currently undercharging for its services compared to other departments. The increase would net the village an additional $47,000 in revenue per year.
Trustee Jay Benkowski said the department should increase the fees even more than 20 percent.
Henningfield presented some staffing options other than creating new full-time positions, including paying part-time, on-call firefighters who respond after radio page. The department eliminated use of paid-on-call firefighters in 1999 as the system wasn’t working well in what was then the Town of Caledonia. Many other departments have had trouble with type of system, Roeder said.
Henningfield said these firefighters often don’t stay with the department very long, resulting in a revolving door of firefighters getting trained, then leaving for career positions.
Another option was paid-on-premise firefighters, who would work regular shifts at the station, and would be paid a lower rate until they went out on a call. The department would have to hire 15 of these part-timers to ensure none got more than 1,200 hours per year, which would allow them to receive benefits.
Roeder and Henningfield both recommended against these options.