BROOKSVILLE — Reluctant to burn an option that would bring the Hernando fire service to a higher safety standard, the County Commission voted Tuesday to apply for a federal grant to pay for new firefighters.
The deadline to apply for the federal money is Friday and the grant would pay 100 percent of the cost of up to 12 firefighters for two years. That would mean that all fire trucks could be staffed with three people, a standard that county Fire Chief Mike Nickerson has sought for years.
In order to get the two years paid, the county would have to finance the cost in the third year. That was where cash-strapped commissioners were reluctant to commit themselves.
In fiscal year 2012-13, six more firefighters would cost the county $175,000, 12 would cost $350,000 because the grant would still pay a portion. In the following fiscal year, that cost would all be on the county at $359,000 for six and $718,000 for 12 positions.
Twelve new firefighters would allow Hernando County Fire Rescue to add one person to each shift on the four fire trucks that now operate with just a two-person crew, Nickerson explained. The industry standard is four per truck. When two people arrive at a fire now, they must decide whether to fight the fire against safety protocols or wait for help to arrive.
"It's not a safe situation,'' Nickerson said.
County Commissioner Jim Adkins, who retired as Brooksville's fire chief, was sympathetic to the need for minimum manpower, but not to the fire department's increase in budgets from $6 million to $14 million since 2005. He said he didn't want to see fire fees increase, but preferred seeing Nickerson and County Administrator David Hamilton find a way to provide the needed staff without costing taxpayers any more money.
Chairman John Druzbick pointed to the 21/2 percent pay raise built into the firefighters' contract for next year and the nearly $100,000 extra that will cost Hernando taxpayers next year.
While the fire service was looking to add people, the County Commission's other departments have faced layoffs, no raises for several years and a pay cut last year.
Druzbick said he would like to see some movement from the fire department. "I'd like to see some concessions,'' he said.
The firefighters have made concessions, argued Robert Rae, president of the local firefighters union. They agreed to pay freezes in the top ranks of the department and to forgo last year's raises as set in the agreed-upon contract in order to hire new firefighters just to save money on overtime.
"I think the union is trying to help things out,'' Rae said. "We just want our people to be safe out there.''
Commissioner David Russell said he couldn't approve recurring costs to be paid with grant money and commit the future commissioners to paying for the additional personnel.
"You have to sharpen your pencils,'' said Commissioner Jeff Stabins. "We want the men and women to be safe, but we've got to do something about the spending.''
Nickerson said he would work with Hamilton to reduce costs and find a way to pay for the staff when the grant funds were gone. He said that if commissioners approve applying for the grant and if a plan to pay the third-year costs doesn't come forward, they could refuse to take the grant.
That compromise was enough to gain a unanimous vote by the commission to apply for the funding.
In other business:
• Commissioners were given a letter recently delivered to Orion Dredging Services LLC, the contractor on the stalled Hernando Beach Channel dredging project. At their attorney's suggestion, they had no discussion on the topic other than announcing that if Orion responds in the next few days the county may have to call a special commission meeting for Tuesday. The county has given Orion a deadline next week to return to the site and begin work on the dredge. The county also refused to agree to a change order that would have driven the cost of the project from the $5 million originally awarded the firm to $12.8 million.
• Commissioners unanimously approved a rezoning for a residential development previously approved at Cobb Road and Fort Dade Avenue. The original plan was for multifamily work force housing on the 40-acre site. The new plan by applicant 34601 Realty Partners LLC offers a mix of 240 multifamily units in buildings of three stories or less and 58 single-family homes.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.