Sutter County May Provide Cost-Share Money to Fire Department

The Sutter County, Calif., Fire Department applied four months ago for a SAFER grant. It also applied for an economic hardship waiver, which would have waived the cost share portion for the county, but it was denied.

by Rachel Rosenbaum, Appeal-Democrat, Marysville, Calif. / July 30, 2019

(TNS) — The Sutter County Board of Supervisors committed to providing cost-share money should the Sutter County Fire Department be awarded a federal grant to supplement staffing.

The board approved a request during a special meeting Friday, in which the county agreed to pay a local share of $707,311 over three years, according to a county press release.

The Sutter County Fire Department applied four months ago for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response — or SAFER — grant, which would provide $1.1 million in funding to hire six firefighters. Along with that application, Fire Chief John Shalowitz applied for an economic hardship waiver, which would have waived the cost share portion for the county, but it was denied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency last week with no direction.

“I was extremely surprised we did not qualify,” Shalowitz said Monday.

He said last year, FEMA started notifying winning departments between mid-July and September.

The move is one of many likely to come in the department’s financial struggles. The Sutter County Grand Jury called the service area — which encompasses 254 square miles — “dangerously understaffed and alarmingly underfunded” in its annual report released last month. The report cited dire challenges due to shortfalls in revenue and staffing, aging and failing equipment and significant increases in workers compensation claims over recent years. The grand jury also reported that a special fire tax for the district — one of three primary funding sources — was established in 1997 without an inflation index, resulting in the current situation where annual expenditures are surpassing recurring revenue. The average household pays $40 a year.

Shalowitz has been vocal about the challenges, and has said in past interviews a new or updated tax measure may be needed. That was echoed in the county press release, which said that board members indicated general support for some form of a tax measure to increase revenues — a longer-term solution for the department.

Shalowitz and the county plan to hold informational community meetings if they pursue a tax measure.

The department — which has 14 full-time firefighters and two dozen volunteers — also applied and has been tentatively awarded $117,000-worth of extrication equipment from the Office of Traffic Safety. Shalowitz continues to look for grant opportunities, but said those offer only temporary solutions.

The board last week approved the formation of an ad-hoc committee to brainstorm short- and long-term solutions, and appointed supervisors Jim Whiteaker and Mike Ziegenmeyer. Other committee members will include representatives from the labor negotiations union and from the County Administrator’s Office.

Shalowitz said he’s happy to see the board’s involvement, and was appreciative of the agreement to provide cost-share funding for short-term staffing.

“I think it was a great showing of support towards the fire department,” Shalowitz said. “It furthers our relationship with the board and committing us to work harder on fixing the fire department.”

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©2019 the Appeal-Democrat (Marysville, Calif.)

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