PEA RIDGE -- A lengthy discussion between city officials for the second month in a row concluded with approval of a grant application for the Pea Ridge Volunteer Fire Department to use the SAFER grant to staff the department.
Several persons in the audience applauded the final decision.
If the grant is awarded to Pea Ridge, the Fire Department will transition from an all-volunteer department to a combination department utilizing both full-time and volunteer firefighters.
Saying "I wish you the best of luck and I pray this is going to work," council member Cody Keene cast his vote to approve. Council members Ahart and Guthrie had already voted yes; council member Ray Easley abstained saying "because at the end of this year, I'm going to step out and I don't feel like I want to dump a load like this on somebody else."
Near the end of the discussion, as city officials spoke of the possibility of deferring action another month to wait for the mayor's opinion, Guthrie reminded the council the mayor already expressed approval.
A lady in the audience, Cathy Ward, said: "Any one of us here in this room, if our house was on fire and we only had volunteers that were there 6 minutes late, who could possibly save that house, save a life... a lot of the citizens want this to pass. They work hard and I know, having been a patient being in an ambulance not long ago, if they had been later, it could have turned out differently. While you're getting information you need, you need to be really thinking long and hard. This is very important. That's a lot of money given to the city."
Keene and Easley had both asked Wassman how the positions would be paid for in the future as they expressed concern about the city's ability to pay the salaries after the grant expires.
Wassman, who said the department's budget already pays for two persons 24 hours a day seven days a week for the ambulance and two persons for eight hours a day seven days a week, said the medical personnel are technically part-time in that they are full-time at other departments and pick up shifts at Pea Ridge. He said the firefighters work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week.
Those salaries could be paid with the SAFER grant money and allow the city to hire the positions full-time, increasing the firefighters' hours to 24 hours a day. Wassman said that saving the currently budgeted salaries would allow extension of the positions into four years.
Fire Chief Jack Wassman presented the grant proposal to the council in June, but numerous questions from council members resulted in the issue being pushed until the July meeting. The federal money provided in the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant are designed to pay a portion of salaries for Fire Department personnel over three years as the department transitions from all volunteer to a combination department.
Easley said he believed 12 people were too many and asked if the grant could be reconfigured for fewer personnel.
Wassman explained that 12 people provides four people per day, running three shifts, which is what is being done at the station now, except with part-time people. He said there are only two people on from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. and there are no city benefits paid to the part-time staff.
Wassman, who is also a full-time firefighter with the Rogers Fire Department, said Rogers is 38 square miles and the Pea Ridge Volunteer Fire Department covers 42 square miles. He said there are standards required by the National Fire Protection Association for fire departments.
"We rely on mutual aid -- other departments around us," Wassman said, explaining the grant would help the department transition to a combination system. "We're trying to find the balance between expectations of service and what available funding will support."
Keene asked whether there would be repercussions to approving the grant application and then not accepting it.
"We probably won't get another grant again," city clerk Sandy Button, sitting in for the mayor, said.
"Did we get the cart before the horse," Keene asked.
"My concern is with the number of guys we're hiring," Ahart said.
"Our citizens have been hollering for years for us to take care of the Fire Department," Guthrie said. "This is going to help us transition into it."
City building official Tony Townsend, sitting in as clerk, said: "I have a problem with your growth projections. The same thing was happening in 2007; we had 1,000 proposed lots, the economy tanked and 800 were never built and 200 sat idle for 10 years."
"This will cover us five years out," Guthrie said.
"It covers us for two years," Easley said. "On the fourth year, we're on our own."
Wassman asserted he presented the numbers during the June meeting and if the salaries are maintained at the current rate, it will be saving that money during the first three years of the grant, allowing money to extend to five years.
"That's like going Kohl's and spending... and it says you've saved $150," Easley said.
"The money we're spending in salaries right now, if we put this money in bank and save it..." Wassman said.
City attorney Shane Perry reiterated: "I think what he's saying is that if they maintain the same budget, put it in reserve, it will get him to that fifth year."
"I don't see it. I've looked at the numbers quite a bit," Easley said. "I don't feel you need 12, plus you want to get rid of community building and turn it into living quarters. In 2019, the community room had about 150 rentals; that's $7,000 we'll be giving up. I think it's a big expense. I don't think it's going to work."
"Don't take me wrong, we need this," Keene said, "but how to fund it properly after four years is the question. I don't want to get rid of the personnel and liquidate assets in five years."
"Can't we take a smaller step, less people to start with," Easley asked. "Several years ago we decided to go to two full-time; jumping to 12 is a massive increase."
Wassman again stated the department is working 12 people but they are different people. "We're currently running four people a day anyway."
"We're running a full-time ambulance with part-time people and have for years. They're working 56 hours somewhere else," Wassman said. "If I need an ambulance, I want it to be a familiar face, someone who cares. It's hard for us to keep coverage on an ambulance on weekends. We struggle to keep EMTs and paramedics.
"Every other city department has its own people. We don't have anybody, we're currently running 12."
Button, chairing the meeting in the absence of the mayor, said: "I think we're all in agreement, we're just having a situation with the numbers."
She said she didn't have the numbers for what the cost is for the positions with benefits. Wassman said he presented that information last month.
"I think there could be a compromise -- a smaller number; maybe keep 12, but not all 12 have full-time benefits. Is that a compromise we could agree on?" Button said.
Wassman said that would be a question for the federal government supplying the grant as those numbers were put into the grant application.
"So, as far as this resolution, it's all or nothing? No compromise?" Button queried.
"Then I would kind of like to table it. I don't want it to fail, but there's too many questions still," she said.
"I think we need to vote on it because the citizens of the city want us to have a full-time department. We're funding the max we can. This would take care of that more that's needed," Guthrie said.
Button recommended tabling the issue. Easley said he would prefer to table it.
"We're just kicking this can down the road instead of taking care of business tonight," Guthrie said.
Wassman said the grant requires the resolution to be passed before it can be issued. He said when the council discussed hiring two full-time employees, the mayor had asked him to hold off for six months in hopes of receiving the SAFER grant. He said that's been done. "I just want to remind you that was approved in January."
"This SAFER grant is a great opportunity," Wassman said.
He said the department would most likely not be considered for another grant if this one is declined.
"Failure to act on the city's behalf, is a failure to act for the citizens," said Jesse Fryer, a board member for Got Your 6ix, who was in the audience.
Ambulance director Jared Powell said the department currently has two people full time on the ambulance and the request is basically asking for 30 more hours per day to staff a fire truck
"My concern, chief, if you go back to FEMA and the application process and start questioning, I feel that could possibly hinder you from getting that grant awarded," Ahart said. "And Cody's point about the mayor, he already told you to apply for it."
A motion to table the resolution failed. The resolution was approved on the third reading.
Annette Beard may be reached by email at [email protected]