Town Manager Says There Are Other Needs Competing For These Dollars
The Smithfield Town Council has approved a request by Fire Chief John Blanton to apply for a federal Assistance to Firefighters Grant for Staffing for adequate Fire & Emergency Service Personnel (SAFER). The grant, if approved, would fund six full-time firefighter positions for three years. Afterwards, the Town would be responsible for 100 percent of the cost.
The Smithfield Fire Department was awarded a SAFER grant in 2017 that funded the hiring of three full-time firefighter positions.
Chief Blanton said if the 2021 grant was approved, the town would only be required to provide uniforms and gear for the six new employees, a one-time cost of $3,100 per firefighter or $18,600 total. Beginning in fourth year, the six positions would cost the town approximately $319,906 per year.
Town Manager Mike Scott cautioned the Council the added cost could equal a four cents property tax increase. He said the yearly cost, factoring in salary increases and rising benefit costs, is closer to $470,000 annually.
In a note to council members, Mr. Scott wrote, “I caution the Council to seriously consider this request, as the on-going cost upon fruition of the grant will likely balloon beyond $470,000 annually. We have invested significantly in the fire department in the last 5 years, including two new engines, one new ladder truck, one additional fire station and six additional firefighters which are now, in the upcoming budget process, being fully paid by the Town. This includes added debt service payments in the General Fund of $122,500 annually until 2030 when the payment of $46,800 will be mature and until 2039 for the remainder.”
“We have additional personnel needs in Finance, Computer Technician, Sanitation, Garage, Water and Sewer, the Water Plant and the Electric Department. New full time equivalent positions in other departments in the last five years include one in Finance, one in General Government, and one in the Police Department. The Fire Department also has a rigorous Capital Improvement Plan… We are currently unable to financially manage our stormwater needs from the General Fund. While it is difficult to fully visualize the financial landscape in four years, given the pandemic, it is a surety that other town services will be competing for these dollars, and likely will have the greater need for our citizens. Should the Council choose to increase property taxes (not a Manager’s recommendation) to cover the additional $470,000 the tax rate would move from 57 cents to 61 cents.”
Chief Blanton pointed out there was no obligation to keep the six personnel beyond the three year grant but stated, “It’s not my need. It is a community need.”
Councilman Travis Scott said he was concerned about firefighter fatigue due to the high call volume the town’s 21 full-time firefighters and limited volunteers respond to annually. Scott said the Smithfield Fire Department responds to more calls that the City of Goldsboro Fire Department.
Chief Blanton said there has been a sharp decline in the number of volunteers in the last 5 years. “There is no one to blame,” he stated pointing out many people are busy with their jobs and families and simply don’t have time to volunteer
In a motion by Councilman Scott and seconded by Councilman Dr. David Barbour, the board voted 7-to-0 to apply for the SAFER Grant.