OGDENSBURG — Two city councilors, alongside community members, are calling on the city manager to apply for federal grant money they say the fire department could use to reinstate the last remaining laid-off firefighter.
For more than two weeks, the city fire union has been lobbying for city leadership to apply for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant money for the fire department. The fire union claims the money could be used to reinstate the last remaining laid-off firefighter, Jacob E. Thornton, as well as grow the department back to 24 members per its contract with the city.
City management has not said they wouldn’t apply for the grant money, but have expressed they do not share the same viewpoint on how the money can be used within the department.
The SAFER grant, which is distributed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was created to provide funding directly to fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations to help them increase or maintain the number of trained, frontline firefighters available in their communities. The city fire department has never received money from this program before, according to the SAFER website.
The grant is for five years, but the amount of funding departments receive is reduced year over year so departments don’t abruptly lose funding. Fire departments are welcome to apply again once its funding runs out.
During Monday night’s City Council meeting, City Manager and Fire Chief Stephen P. Jellie gave council an update about the SAFER grant application process. He said he’s looking into applying for the grant through the lens of how the money can help sustain the fire department at 20 members.
“We’ve set the staffing in this organization for the year to be 20 overall personnel and I’ll be seeking SAFER grant funding … to support what the council has set as the staffing level for the fire department,” Mr. Jellie said Monday night. “I don’t intend to ask the federal government for money for staffing above and beyond what council has set as the staffing limit for the organization, nor do I think that’s a necessity.”
“I disagree,” Councilor Michael B. Powers said in response.
“The SAFER grant is worth applying for,” Councilor Daniel E. Skamperle added.
Jason T. Bouchard, president of Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters, Local 1799, has said the grant money would allow the department to be restored to its contractually agreed upon minimum of 24 firefighters.
The city and fire union have been at odds for months over the city’s alleged violation of the union’s minimum staffing agreement when officials imposed the elimination of seven fire positions. The positions were eliminated — dropping the department staff from 27 firefighters to 20 at the time — when City Council passed its 2021 budget on Dec. 9.
Five layoff notices were issued just before the new year as one fire captain opted for retirement and another firefighter was out on leave at the time. Four of the five laid-off firefighters have since been brought back to work following their Jan. 1 dismissals as more firefighters have opted to retire, but one firefighter still remains laid off: Mr. Thornton.
Mr. Skamperle said the federal grant money would allow for Mr. Thornton to be reinstated to the department.
“I fully support it — going after the SAFER grant,” he said.
Brittany Thornton, Mr. Thornton’s wife, spoke at Monday’s council meeting following comments from councilors on the grant process. She pleaded with city leadership to bring her husband back to work.
Mrs. Thornton claims Mr. Jellie said that two more firefighters would have to retire in order for her husband to be brought back to work.
With the recent downsizing of the fire department, Mrs. Thornton said this leads her to believe the city has saved a “significant” amount of money which could be used to reinstate her husband.
It costs the city about $131,00 per firefighter annually, including salary and benefits, and the average annual salary of a city firefighter is $70,767.
“One person being laid off is not worth the impact on the budget and what you have been putting us through as a family,” Mrs. Thornton said, “you are continuing to punish our family.”
She said there are no other professional opportunities for her husband to use his training in the area, which she said council is aware of.
“I have served my community for 16 years and all Jake would like to do is the same without having to uproot our family … from our hometown,” she said.
Now-retired Assistant Fire Chief Ronald Bouchard also weighed in at Monday’s council meeting, writing a letter to members in support of bringing Mr. Thornton back to work.
The union’s current six-year contract states that any union member assigned to a shift with fewer than six assigned members shall receive an extra $3 an hour, also known as hazard pay. They will receive another $3 an hour for each subsequent reduction to the number of assigned shift members.
Firefighters are currently receiving hazard pay as the minimum shift staffing of the department has been reduced to four members.
Ronald Bouchard said in his letter that hazard pay equates to $31,200 a year if it were to continue.
“Bringing Jake back would cause the hazard pay to cease on that shift, because they would then have the required six members assigned,” his letter reads.
Ronald Bouchard also commented on the SAFER grant application.
“There’s 18 days left (as of Monday) until the application deadline on March 12. Four firefighter positions could be funded with the grant. I hope the city is working on applying,” he wrote.
The portal to apply for SAFER grant money opened Feb. 8, and the deadline for grant applications to be submitted is 5 p.m. on March 12.
The fire department is currently operating with 21 firefighters as Mr. Jellie said he has been able to reallocate money from the fire chief’s salary in order to pay for the 21st firefighter.