Union Says Long-Term Plan Needed To Retain New Atlantic City Firefighters Hired With Grant Money

ATLANTIC CITY — The head of the city’s firefighter union wants to know the long-term plan for retaining a crop of new hires when the temporary funding used to bring them on board expires.

The problem is — just as it has been in the past — there does not appear to be one, and the union president is concerned the fire department will, once again, be targeted for budget cuts through staffing reductions when it comes time to pay up.

Atlantic City was awarded $4.3 million in federal grant funding that is to be used for hiring roughly 25 new firefighters. The new hires will increase the department’s total numbers to about 200, a move necessitated by nearly a dozen retirements earlier this year that dropped staffing levels below a judge’s order for a minimum of 180 city firefighters.

But John Varallo Jr., president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 198, said he has not been told how the city, or its state overseers, plan to keep the new hires in the department when the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, funding expires in three years.

He said he is concerned about the “lack of a strategic plan” to absorb the new hires into the city’s municipal budget when the grant funding expires and is worried it will be “used against us” in the form of layoffs and cuts down the line.

“We supported applying for SAFER, and we support the intended purpose. I want to be very clear about that,” Varallo said. “I want to increase the membership of the department so we can return to a level of service that this city deserves, but it has to be done in a responsible manner.”

The state Department of Community Affairs, which has direct oversight of Atlantic City following the 2016 takeover, did not provide a response to the question of how the new recruits would be paid for after the SAFER grant funding is gone.  

Mayor Marty Small Sr. said a decision has not been made on how the city will handle the influx of new firefighters.

“We want to make the best, fiscally sound decision on behalf of our taxpayers,” Small said. “We don’t want to put the city or the new (firefighters) in a position to fail. So, before we make a decision like that, we have to look at the long-term viability and make it better for everyone.”

The SAFER grant requires the city to pay a 25% match the first two years and a 65% match the third. The grant also doesn’t cover health care and pension obligations.

In 2018, the DCA prevented the city from applying for the SAFER grant, citing the lack of future funding to retain the new hires.

The ACFD has been awarded more than $41 million in SAFER grants — including $21.5 million three years ago, the second-largest award in the country — since 2009.

But, past SAFER grant funding has been used for questionable purposes, including moving existing firefighters onto the federal grant and paying debt obligations.

“In my experience, unless the city and state are responsible enough, this will only be another temporary fix,” Varallo said. “We want the state to slow down so we can talk it out and, hopefully, get these guys on the books.”

From www.pressofatlanticcity.com