Kevin Valine

Who knew accepting ‘free’ money could be so complicated?

Firefighters free a man from after a wreck in downtown Modesto in July. The City Council accepted a $1.08 million federal grant Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016, that will train more firefighters as paramedics.
Firefighters free a man from after a wreck in downtown Modesto in July. The City Council accepted a $1.08 million federal grant Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016, that will train more firefighters as paramedics. jsilva@modbee.com

Those who watched Tuesday’s City Council meeting saw something rare – a majority of the council not accepting a decision from top city staff.

The issue is over a $1.08 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant awarded to the Fire Department to pay for training and equipping 12 firefighters as paramedics. The grant does not take effect unless the council accepts it.

Councilwoman Kristi Ah You said Tuesday that City Manager Jim Holgersson told her he would not bring the grant to the council for consideration. Ah You said she was “gravely concerned” about that and introduced a motion to put the grant on the agenda for next week’s council meeting. The motion passed 6-1, with Councilman Doug Ridenour voting “no.”

“I think this is a decision that should be made by the council,” Ah You said after the meeting. She said she does not have an issue with Holgersson and said council members rely on his experience and judgment. But she disagrees with him on this issue.

Holgersson was at a conference and not at Tuesday’s meeting. But in a text message he reiterated points he has made about the grant, including how well it fits with the recommendations from Mayor Ted Brandvold’s budget review committee and how it adds costs to a city budget already facing challenges.

The Fire Department applied for the grant in January before Brandvold took office and his committee was convened. In June, the committee issued 34 recommendations, which were adopted by the council.

The recommendations include the city reviewing emergency medical services provided by the Fire Department and American Medical Response to see whether the department and AMR could work more closely and provide more cost-effective services. The department now has 18 firefighters who are trained as paramedics, and AMR operates ambulances staffed with paramedics in Modesto.

“Why expand fire services prior to the development of any recommendations or long-term strategy?” Holgersson wrote in his text. But Ah You said it will take lots of time to review the EMS recommendation and come up with a plan while the paramedic grant can be implemented sooner.

Holgersson also wrote Modesto has recently approved new labor agreements, which will increase its employee costs, and ramped up police staffing from 218 to 240 officers. He added the city faces rising pension costs. “The grants require matches and additional costs not budgeted currently and place even greater pressure on long-term fiscal sustainability,” he wrote.

Besides the paramedic grant, FEMA awarded the Fire Department a $2.2 million grant that will let it hire nine firefighters for two years. But the city expects to incur about $421,000 in its own costs over the grant’s two years. The paramedic grant requires a 10 percent match – or $108,000 – from the city, and firefighters trained as paramedics receive 6 percent incentive pay.

The council unanimously accepted the $2.2 million grant Tuesday.

Holgersson wrote that it is his and staff’s job to give the council the full picture and their best judgment, but the council can choose to go in another direction. He makes excellent points but so does Ah You. The place for a discussion and decision on the paramedic grant is a council meeting.

But who knew accepting “free” money could be so complicated?

Kevin Valine: 209-578-2316

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