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Watertown applying for fire department grant despite some opposition

Payne Horning
WRVO News (file photo)

Watertown is applying for a federal grant to help pay for new firefighters, but officials are divided on whether it will ultimately save the city money.

Watertown Fire Chief Dale Herman will file the application on behalf of the city, hoping to bring on four new firefighters with the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant. It would be the first time the fire department has hired since 2012.

"It's just the responsible thing to do," said Councilor Cody Horbacz. "If we wait another three years, the median age of a firefighter is going to be 47, 48, and they're only going to get older. And we aren't doing anything to replenish that department."

Another reason Horbacz says he voted to apply for the grant is the potential savings to the city. Several firefighters have left the department since it last hired, leading to a spike in overtime costs because the firefighter union's contract requires a minimum of 15 personnel on every shift. That has been the primary source of tension in the years-long legal battle between the city and union.

"The fire chief's report said that by adding four firefighters through this grant, the city could save a total of $939,315 over the next three years - nearly a million dollars can be saved," Horbacz said. "That's significant."

All four councilors voted to apply for the grant despite the advice not to from City Manager Sharon Addison. She notes that the grant only covers 75 percent of the new hires' costs for the first two years, and 35 percent in the third. It also does not pay for training.

Mayor Joseph Butler was the lone vote against applying.

"I’m trying to advocate for a smaller department, not a larger department," Butler said. 

He says it's also short-sighted because it requires the city to maintain the same staffing level throughout the grant's three-year term.

"If 5 or 6 firefighters retire while we're under this grant, we have to replace those and then the additional 4 they have to hire," Butler said. "So now you might have 10 new firefighters that are going to be there for the long haul. That doesn’t reduce costs. That increases it."

But Horbacz disagrees, saying there are many firefighters in their 50s. He says they are likely going to retire in 3-5 years, after the grant ends.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.