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Council mulls budget add-on for fire salaries

FOREST PARK — A request for $422,850 in salaries and benefits for six firefighters raised eyebrows Tuesday but Chief Eddie Buckholts explained the funding is part of a bigger grant program.

Ward 1 Councilwoman Sparkle Adams asked about the expenditure during Tuesday morning’s work session and Mayor Pro Tem Linda Lord stayed after the meeting to hear Buckholts’ detailed explanation for the request.

Forest Park got a SAFER grant four years ago. The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant is awarded through Federal Emergency Management Agency specifically to provide funding for emergency services personnel. Buckholts said the $685,000, five-year grant provided money to hire 18 people to staff the Fort Gillem Fire Station.

“We were supposed to transition into the station in September 2011 but when the Army phased out the department, we had to get moved in in May 2011,” he said. “Fortunately, because of the way we were handling the grant, we were able to do it six months ahead of schedule.”

Forest Park city leaders are buying Fort Gillem from the U.S. Army and have a variety of long-term plans for development of the property. The property includes a fire station.

The grant allowed Buckholts to spread out the hiring of 18 firefighters over three years. The $422,850 for the 2012-2013 fiscal year is meant to supplement what the grant doesn’t cover, he said.

City clerk Mike Blandenburg, who is also finance director, said the money covers $304,500 in salaries, $12,700 in holiday pay, $70,500 for life and health insurance, $19,250 for FICA, $4,500 for Medicare and $11,400 for retirement contributions. City Manager John Parker said the city pays about 30 percent of a worker’s salary in benefits, above the earned amount.

“We can’t pay very much in salary but our benefits are very good,” he said. “If an employee is single with no dependents, he or she pays no insurance premium. For families with dependents, the premium is $12 a week. That will likely change under ObamaCare.”

Buckholts said the Fort Gillem station, one of three in Forest Park, is staffed by a lieutenant, a paramedic and three firefighters for each of three shifts.

Blandenburg said he didn’t factor in that the SAFER grant decreases incrementally over the five years, which accounts for needing $422,850.

“The funding is less than what I projected it to be,” he said.

In other Council action:

• Lord did a second reading of a proposed change in the ordinance allowing three members to constitute a quorum for a limited basis. Once it is approved, expected Tuesday night, it becomes a permanent change.

• The council is expected to approve the purchase of property necessary for the second phase of development for the Streetscape project. Parker said he couldn’t discuss the particulars of the project. “Hopefully, we can let the contract in the next two or three months,” he said. “We need to make this decision now, though, to get all of it together.”