NY fire union seeks grant funds to restore staffing levels despite resistance from chief

The Ogdensburg union has fought to restore the department to a minimum of 24 members following budget cuts and layoffs


Applications for the 2020 SAFER grant are open as of Feb. 8, 2021, and will remain open until March 12, 2021, at 5 p.m. Read more about eligibility requirements, application details and program priorities here. 

Sydney Schaefer
Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.

OGDENSBURG, N.Y. — The city fire union is lobbying for city leadership to apply for federal grant money that could restore the fire department to 24 firefighters, but management doesn't share the same viewpoint.

The portal to apply for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant money opened Monday, and leadership within the city fire union is urging the city manager, who is also the fire chief, to apply for the grant.

Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters Local 1799 is seeking SAFER grant funds to help restore its staffing levels to 24 members, but City Manager and Fire Chief Stephen P. Jellie said he plans to keep staffing at 20 members.
Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters Local 1799 is seeking SAFER grant funds to help restore its staffing levels to 24 members, but City Manager and Fire Chief Stephen P. Jellie said he plans to keep staffing at 20 members. (Photo/Odgensburg, NY)

The grant, which is distributed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was created to provide funding directly to fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations to help them increase or maintain the number of trained, frontline firefighters available in their communities. The city fire department has never received money from this program before, according to the SAFER website.

The goal of SAFER, according to its website, is to enhance the local fire departments' abilities to comply with staffing, response and operational standards established by the National Fire Protection Association. The deadline for grant applications to be submitted is 5 p.m. on March 12.

Jason T. Bouchard, president of Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters, Local 1799, is asking City Manager and Fire Chief Stephen P. Jellie to apply for the federal funding in order to restore the fire department to 24 members under its collective bargaining agreement.

"Ogdensburg Firefighters Local 1799 finds Mr. Jellie's written and vocalized disinterest in applying for the SAFER Grant as yet another telling, agenda-driven decision by this administration to annihilate our proud department," Mr. Bouchard said in an email Monday.

Mr. Jellie offered a rebuttal Monday saying he hasn't reviewed the parameters for the grant yet, as it just opened Monday and the specifications for the application are different each year. He did indicate he will "certainly" be taking a look at it.

Mr. Jellie elaborated further by saying he will be reviewing the application from the viewpoint of how the money could help the city sustain 20 firefighters, not grow the department back to 24 firefighters.

"We're not working toward getting back to 24 firefighters," he said Monday. "We're not sitting here saying its our goal to maintain 24."

Mr. Jellie said he and city leadership do not think they're putting the community at risk — an argument that's been made by the union and some community members — by having 20 firefighters, rather than 24, staffed in the department.

The city and fire union have been at odds for months over the city's alleged violation of the union's minimum staffing agreement when officials imposed the elimination of seven fire positions. The positions were eliminated — dropping the department staff from 27 firefighters to 20 at the time — when City Council passed its 2021 budget Dec. 9 of last year.

The escalating public battle between the city and union has been making its way through the state Supreme Court system as the city and union have each filed suit against the other. The union's lawsuit was dismissed by a judge, but the city's suit over arbitration issues, which was filed upon the union's suit dismissal, is still pending in state Supreme Court in St. Lawrence County.

Under the union's minimum staffing agreement, the department is to have no fewer than 24 firefighters.

Right now, the department is operating with 19 firefighters as Assistant Fire Chief Ronald Bouchard, a 32-year veteran of the city fire department and former union secretary, retired, effective Jan. 31. Firefighter Jared Wells was then terminated for misconduct the following day.

It's unclear how much money the federal agency would grant the city if the city applies and is eventually awarded the money.

But Mr. Bouchard said the money would fully fund up to four positions in the fire department.

To understand how much money that may be, it should be noted that it costs the city about $131,00 per firefighter annually, including salary and benefits, and the average annual salary of a city firefighter is $70,767.

"This grant exists to help municipalities afford proper fire protection and is 100% financed," Mr. Bouchard said in an email. "With merely 19 members, now would seem to be a perfect opportunity to apply for such a grant. However, city administration has shown zero interest in doing so.

"If the city truly desires to bring these dedicated men back to work and ensure proper fire protection, why not apply?"

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(c)2021 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.)

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