Portsmouth City Council met Monday evening and a decision on one item from the agenda led to what some members of council called their most difficult vote yet.
The item, if passed, would repeal ordinance no. 63 of 2019 subsequently declining the acceptance of the SAFER grant to hire 6 new firefighters, due to it being deemed not economically feasible to do so.
The legislation first presented at the Jan. 13 meeting read:
“Whereas, as Council is aware, we are tasked with the requirement of producing a five-year financial forecast for the six funds that placed the city in the current state of “Fiscal Watch” by the State of Ohio. In order to have the Fiscal Watch status lifted the forecast is required to show a positive fund balance at the end of the five-year projection for those six funds. The forecast also must match the budget for fiscal year 2020; and Whereas, in order achieve this goal departmental budgets are going to have to be trimmed. One of the largest issues is the expenses tied to the acceptance of the SAFER Grant to hire six new firefighters. Realizing that the grant totals approximately $1,000,000.00 ($1 million) and allowing for considerations of potential revenue enhancement and overtime savings, forecasting demonstrates the city cannot achieve a positive balance in General Fund No. 101 for the five years. This is whether the city accepts the grant and keeps the six firefighters employed after the grant expires or through attrition the positions are not refilled.”
Due to time constraints council needed to make a final decision on the item, which was up for a third reading, at Monday’s meeting and based on discussion several members were still unsure of where they stood going into the final vote.
Questions were raised by members of council regarding how many firefighters were required per the city’s charter, if current staffing met National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) guidelines, and the sheer volume of structure fires per year.
Solicitor John Haas stated that per a 1987 ordinance, 44 firefighters were required for the city.
Portsmouth Fire Chief Bill Raison informed council that there are currently 39 individuals employed by the department, composed of 38 uniformed officers and one administrative assistant. Raison stated that NFPA recommends four firefighters per engine and five per ladder truck, and with three engine companies within the city that would require 12 staff at all times and one ladder company requiring five individuals. Raison also stated an average of 30-50 structure fires per year in which at least 14 firefighters are recommended to respond to each incident.
President of Council Kevin E. Johnson asked if NFPA rules had been adopted locally, to which Chief Raison responded that NFPA standards had been adopted years ago by the city. Johnson asked if PFD was able to meet NFPA standards by means of having the recommended number of staff on the ladder truck.
“We have two on. When we have minimum staffing, which is a lot of the time, that’s nine individuals per shift and gives us two on everything truck and one remaining,” said Raison.
Johnson asked if the hiring of six new firefighters would change the number of individuals sent out on trucks, to which Raison said it would not change the number of people sent out on ladder trucks, but said NFPA also accounts for the number of individuals which could respond to a residential structure fire within a six minute window. Raison said with no one on vacation, and automatic aid from New Boston it was possible for PFD to turn out 14 people for a structure fire.
“I think if we all sat down and looked at the Charter and the NFPA standards and some of the studies that have been done in relation to the size of your fire crew and the time it takes to control an incident I think everyone would agree that we need more firefighters, the real issue is do we have the money to pay for it?” Raison said. “I think as a council you’re in a difficult position with the five-year forecast which creates a fair amount of uncertainty on where things are headed.”
Raison shared from his department’s side, they know what they need and felt they needed to take advantage of the opportunity now.
“I think the decision is a little more difficult for you [Council], there is some risk involved. Some people are more risk adverse than others, obviously as firefighters we are not as risk adverse. You pay us to take risks, we take calculated risks,” said Raison. “So I know there’s some risk with this.”
In reviewing numbers for the projected future, council concluded that without the new firefighters fiscal year 2024 will end with a remaining balance of $3.8 million, and if council chooses to accept the grant and bring in six new firefighters and remove them after the three years is up the remaining balance would be $3.5 million. Council stated that if they kept the six new firefighters the remaining balance of 2024 would be 2.5 million, a total loss of $1.3 million not including any unemployment.
“Council has always been very supportive of the Portsmouth Fire Department, so no matter how this goes tonight, how this vote turns out, Portsmouth Fire Department needs to know we are very supportive of them,” Johnson said. Johnson stated however that being a city in fiscal watch the numbers would lay very heavy on the decision-making process.
At voting, the ordinance to decline the acceptance of the SAFER grant was passed in a 4-2 vote with councilmembers McManus and Gordon in the minority.
In other matters of business, council passed an ordinance amending section 175.07 of the codified ordinances of the City of Portsmouth, Ohio- Licensing; Insurance on for a third reading.
Reach: Ivy Potter (740) 353-3101 Extension 1932
© 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.