Santa Paula Times

SPFD: Council agrees to cover SAFER
grant gap but worries about future

June 20, 2014
Santa Paula News

Santa Paulans can feel safer now that the gap in the SAFER grant is filled... at least for now.

The $825,000 SAFER (Staff for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant provides the Santa Paula Fire Department with five firefighters for a two-year period; it kicked in June 2012 and would expire in September although funding would take care of SPFD needs until November.

Although Fire Chief Rick Araiza has told the City Council he is fairly confident the city will again be SAFER funded - at no matching cost to the city - it is still to be seen although the Department of Homeland Security funding has been secured for future grants.

When finalizing the 2014-2015 Fiscal Year budget at the June 16 council meeting, Mayor Rick Cook brought up the grant and possible funding needs.

Councilman Martin Hernandez noted, “I know we talked about the SAFER grant last time,” and after discussing the issue with City Manager Jaime Fontes, “I know we have some wiggle room in our budget... “

Hernandez requested the council approve “bridge funding” of about $233,000 that would cover six months of expenses until the grant was refunded.

Cook asked where the funding would come and Finance Director Sandy Easley said the city’s $1.8 million reserve would cover the amount.

The amount, noted Vice Mayor Jim Tovias would be less if the funding were released sooner.

And, noted Hernandez, “That would be the limit of the council support,” in case the SPFD grant was not renewed.

Cook said he was worried about giving present SAFER funded firefighters “false hopes,” after the council was urged to approve the grant funding in the first place.

“We say something and then go back on it,” Cook said if funding is not renewed, “then we’ll have to go back on our word... “

Araiza noted that the SPFD is “now below the national average in response times and our loss figures have tremendously improved... we’ve improved our time on knockdown,” all attributable to the SAFER grant funded firefighters.

“The benefits,” said Araiza, “are enormous, they’re concrete. Those are statistics we can prove... we’re 30 seconds faster than national average getting water on a fire,” improvements that continue based on the “continuity of our team.”

Councilman Bob Gonzales said the city “Must come up with a plan,” for firefighters based on other factors than the grant.

“If I was one of those employees,” working under the SAFER grant, Gonzales said, “I would start looking for a job tomorrow... “

Araiza said the SPFD is also trying to find alternative funding including charging for some services as well as seeking firefighter sponsorship, such as a program in Santa Barbara.

Councilman Ralph Fernandez said he expects deja vu all over again: “I think what we said two years ago,” about the possibility of having to replace lost SAFER grant funding will apply two years in the future if the new funding is approved.

“I’ll support the motion,” but Fernandez noted he is “not confident” that new development, particularly Limoneira East Area projects, would provide funding.

Now, with the funding gap being covered by the city and new SAFER funding questionable, “I have to blame you,” Cook told Araiza.