St. Petersburg won't apply for stimulus money to hire firefighters

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster said Thursday he won't apply for federal stimulus dollars to hire up to 17 new firefighters.

The announcement came minutes before the City Council voted 4-4 on a resolution urging his administration to apply for the federal grant.

The tie vote was a blow to the city's firefighters union, which had lobbied Foster and council members in recent weeks to apply for the two-year grant so the department could restaff 17 fire positions eliminated during the 2009 budget year.

Fire Chief James Large said the grant requirements would put too much pressure on St. Petersburg's budget.

The Department of Homeland Security grant aims to help fire departments rehire firefighters who have been laid off because of economic constraints. It requires recipients to maintain current staffing levels for two years and fund the new firefighters for a year after the grant expires.

The city could not agree to those terms amid ongoing discussions with county officials over local rescue funding that could make St. Petersburg's staffing levels vulnerable to further cuts, Large said.

"Nobody would like to have more people than I would," Large said. "It's about being fiscally responsible."

During a workshop Thursday, council members Steve Kornell, Karl Nurse, Wengay Newton and Bill Dudley voted for the resolution urging Foster to apply for the grant.

Council members Jeff Danner, Herb Polson, Leslie Curran and Jim Kennedy opposed the resolution.

However the vote fell, the decision to apply was ultimately up to Foster, who was in his fourth day on the job.

Foster warned council members he would not comply with the resolution if it passed.

"We can't risk being labeled by the federal government as an agency that defaults," he said, adding: "Please don't put me in the position to be the bad guy, but if you do, I'll be the bad guy."

St. Petersburg lost 14 firefighters in 2009 after its contract to staff Tierra Verde's fire station was not renewed.

Three more positions were lost because of county budget cuts. The county helps the city pay for some rescue positions.

Union officials said St. Petersburg fire stations are overworked and understaffed. St. Petersburg Fire Rescue is the only major department in the Tampa Bay area that allows two-man crews on ladder trucks. The Fire Department reported 7,278 hours of overtime last year.

"We do have holes in the system, and this grant could help us fill those holes," said Rick Pauley, vice president of the firefighters union.

Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters, said at least a dozen Florida members have contacted the union about applying for the grant.

"This is free money, no strings attached, and it doesn't make sense to risk public safety when the money is there to keep the firefighters working," he said.

Tampa received a similar grant last year that funds 36 fire positions.

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg won't apply for stimulus money to hire firefighters 01/07/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 7, 2010 10:40pm]

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