BRADENTON -- A discussion about whether to apply for a federal grant to hire new firefighters for the Bradenton Fire Department sparked a debate Wednesday about whether the city's public safety efforts are keeping up with growth.
During the Great Recession, the city cut six fire service positions from its staff of 67. There are 57 firefighters that split three round-the-clock shifts at the city's three main fire stations, serving as fire suppressors and
medical and rescue emergency responders. The remaining 10 positions are filled by a combination of certified firefighters and civilian administrative support.
Bradenton Fire Chief Charles Edwards said the department did what it had to do at the time to reduce expenses, "and it's worked out OK. We've tried to make the difference in mutual aid with the county, but there are some areas of the city that the county can't get to in the time we need them to. So what we want to do is bring back those six positions we lost around 2011."
The department operates on an $8.6 million budget, with about half made up of salaries. On Wednesday, Councilman Gene Gallo said he supports the department's desire to apply for a grant to hire six new firefighters and pay their salaries for two years. The challenge the city faces is the several hundred thousand dollars it would absorb when the grant expires.
Without taking a vote, the city council indicated it would support applying for the grant, which could be worth up to $500,000.
"These grants are the way firefighters have increased staff for years, and it's a good deal," said Gallo.
Currently, the three city fire stations sit within borders of 17th Street East to the east and 75th Street West to the west. Edwards said Station 2 to the east isn't far enough out to keep up with the city's expansion.
"It needs to be farther east," said Edwards. "It's also in need of a lot of repairs, so we've looked at the possibility of replacing it anyway. It would be a good time to find a new location that would put it somewhere in between the eastern boundary and where we are now."
Expanding to the east
City Administrator Carl Callahan said, "the immediate push is to the east. With the way the city is expanding, there may be a need for a bigger station."
Ward 4 Councilman Bemis Smith said he doesn't oppose the grant application but questions the need.
"I don't want to end up with more firefighters than the need we have now," he said. "I haven't heard from anyone we aren't providing the services for a lack of firefighters. I know that this is one of biggest cost centers ... and I'm hearing the pushback all the time from other fire districts that have places across the street from ours."
Smith said if the grant is about the future, then he wants the fire department to present a detailed plan, "based on growth rather than just saying get a grant for firefighters for two years. I've asked several times when there would be new fire stations going in and I would like to see a fire station plan."
Gallo said the city has had to forfeit donated land set aside for new fire stations.
"We ended up losing that land because they were never done," said Gallo. "This is an opportunity to get personnel because the growth isn't going to stop. It's about time we act. When you look around, the city's fire department is one of the smallest in the county."
Ward 5 Councilman Harold Byrd Jr. said the city has "to have some kind of anticipation that we are eventually going to need those firefighters."
Callahan said initially, if the grant application is successful, it would reduce costs to the city by reducing overtime.
"It wouldn't reduce costs forever, obviously," he said. "There's no guarantee that this will even be successful, but we believe because of our past cuts and growth of the city, we would have a strong application. It is a look toward the future and the ability to expand."
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.