Reconsider SAFER Grant

One cannot blame Weirton City Council members for not wanting to commit the municipality to a big increase in annual spending. Still, it appears some method of covering the cost of new employees for the fire department needs to be found.

Earlier this year, it was suggested the city apply for a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant. Fire Chief Jerry Shumate had hoped to get the money to hire five new firefighters.

In comparison to nearby cities, Weirton’s fire department is understaffed, Shumate said at the time. It has only 22 professional firefighters.

But last month, city council voted the SAFER grant idea down, in a 5-2 vote. Mayor Harold Miller referred to the proposal as “only a short-term fix to a long-term problem.”

If approved, a SAFER grant would have covered 75 percent of the cost of five new firefighters for two years. During the third year, the grant share would drop to 35 percent, then federal funds would go away. Shumate had estimated the eventual cost of his proposal to the city at $680,000 a year.

During their Monday meeting, the issue came up again before council members. There was no move to revive the SAFER plan.

Instead, Miller suggested forming a task force of council members and firefighters to consider ways of obtaining more help in the fire department.

Various suggestions have been made. One is to seek voter approval of a property tax levy to help fund the fire department.

At some point, something will have to be done about the challenge. “We have to have a plan in place,” Councilman Terry Weigel noted this week.

Indeed.

One component of such a strategy could be seeking a SAFER grant, perhaps for fewer than the five firefighters Shumate wants.

Of course, some method of ensuring money is available to pay a bigger department needs to be found. But if that can be done, why not tap the federal government for some funds, during the three-year SAFER grant’s duration, rather than have Weirton residents and businesses cover the whole tab?

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