2018-06-01 / Front Page

Town seeks staffing grant

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Selectmen have signed off on a federal grant application that will allow the Kennebunk Fire Department to augment its fulltime crew compliment with four new firefighters, adding one per shift.

The decision was not unanimous and some questioned both the cost and timing of the proposal.

The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants (SAFER) grant program, offered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), would offer a stair- step approach to funding.

The three-year grant would pay 75 percent of the $375,000 cost of four new firefighters, or $264,000, in years one and two. In the final year, it would ramp down to 65 percent, or $228,000. After that, taxpayers would be on the hook for the full amount, getting the entire bill starting in the 2022 fiscal year.

The SAFER grant is not new to Kennebunk. In fact, Fire Chief Jeffrey Rowe said the current evolution of the fire department from volunteer service to career company staffed by a fulltime crew began with a SAFER grant in 2009.

“That basically started some of the career force, putting on two firefighters,” he said.

The $1.76 million fire department budget to be approved (or not) by voters June 12, already includes $120,000 to convert four current per-diem firefighters to full-time status. The new money covers employee benefits, such as health insurance.

At the May 22 selectboard meeting, Rowe said he’s “not sure” if the SAFER grant can be used to cover the cost of converting the four per diems.

“Generally, the grant can’t be used to cover the cost of already budgeted items,” he said. “But there is the possibility of a waiver. But if we get the grant, the absolute worst that happens is we refuse it.”

“I’m always concerned to not at least put our foot in the door,” Town Manager Mike Pardue said. “If we do not enter into this now, I’m sure these are certainly positions we’ll be looking to add I’m sure in years to come.”

Rowe said that absolutely is the case and that he’ll likely be coming to selectmen in future budget years to request additional full-time staffing.

“Per diems are getting very scarce,” he said. “The pool is absolutely shrinking. We’ve had some shifts lately where instead of four per diems on staff, we’ve had three.”

“We’ve known this was coming. We’ve kicked the can down the road as far as we can, I think,” Selectman Christopher Cluff said.

One concern, however, is where Kennebunk plans to bunk all those staffers.

“You’re running out of space. Where are you going to house these people?” Selectman Dan Boothby asked.

“Quite frankly, we haven’t given that a whole bunch of consideration at this point in time,” Rowe said.

However, when it was reported that Pardue had already authorized Rowe filing for the grant, because the deadline fell between board meetings, and that all selectmen were being asked for was letter of support, some appeared to take that news on the chin.

“I think we put the cart before the horse a little bit,” Cluff said.

“For the first time I have to say I’m almost speechless,” said Sharon Staz, rising from the audience. “I find it very difficult to understand that you are just hearing about this tonight and are about to take a vote committing what could be over a $400,000 increase to the budget four years from now, without more consideration, more personnel studies and more rationale, when there are many other things that have come before you that are much less (costly) and have a more positive impact, that can’t get addressed.”

Rowe said he understood during the budgeting process earlier this spring that selectmen wanted him to apply for more grants, which he dutifully did. The only issue, he said, was that the deadline cycle for the SAFER award came up quicker this year than it has in years past. Decisions will be made by mid-June he said, with grants announced by July 1.

Most of the board backed offering official, if belated, backing for the grant application.

“I think right now we get the letter out so we can support the grant,” Selectman William Ward said. “If we win, then we can have a longer discussion.”

Only Boothby voted against the decisions.

“I would just feel a lot better if the budget board was in this process and we were able to get their comment, because that’s how we do it,” Boothby said.

After the decision, word came that the SAFER grant issue would be added to the agenda for a special selectmen’s meeting on Tuesday, May 29.

That meeting took place after the print deadline for this week’s Post.

“Chief Rowe has performed additional research on this grant and would like to offer added insight,” Pardue said.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

Return to top