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Lehigh Fire again vying for a Safer grant

February 8, 2012
By MEL TOADVINE ( , Lehigh Acres Citizen

Lehigh Acres Fire Dept. Chief Don Adams and his staff are tweeting an application from the federal government program known as FEMA for a Safer grant that could pump millions into the Lehigh Acres Fire District and save the jobs of 34 positions that are due to expire on Aug. 13 of this year.

Adams told The Citizen that he had heard the federal government would release the dates the grant would be available from late fall to winter. He received news last week that the Safer grant was available and Adams said he began writing a narrative for the grant as early at 5:30 a.m. one day last week.

"They are asking for a lot more information than they did the last time. There is a lot to fill out and the need in Lehigh is so desperately needed that we have to be careful and be accurate and dot every 'I' and cross every 'T' to complete the application document," Adams said.

"I drafted the first draft last Tuesday morning and we have gone over and over it to make sure our figures and our facts are correct.

Since the bust of 2008, the Lehigh Acres Fire District has seen its income dwindling due to lesser amount of ad valorem taxes from houses that are now worth half as much as they were in years before 2008.

"When less money comes in, it shows an impact on our budget, Adams said.

That as the reason a few years ago when the District laid off 34 positions in 2009. The District had applied for a Safer Grant from FEMA and firefighters, EMS, the chief and his staff and support personnel had their fingers crossed, hoping that Lehigh would get an award.

"We were hit hard and when the Safer grant came, we were able to hire back and fill the positions.

"But that grant comes to an end on Aug. 13 of this year and we will be forced to lay the 34 positions again. This has to be frustration for the personnel involved, not knowing whether or not they will have a job after August," the chief said.

"We have to show that the district has taken a major hit and the economy has decreased and homes in Lehigh are under water and many have been foreclosed on.

"When they get the application finished those who make the decisions in Washington, D.C., will examine each application and made a decision which is based on a fire department and community with the greatest need," Adams said.

Everything in the application must be done carefully and accurately and the deadline is 5 p.m. on Feb. 24. The pages and pages of information that is needed must be sent to FEMA electronically, the chief said.

The department has 111 combat firefighters and 120 full staff, including all positions, he said.

Back in 2009, the District went through with the layoff of more than three dozen and then 12 employees and then another 12 were told they may be laid off, too, because of budgetary problems. And they were told that the Safer grand would be the only thing that could save their jobs.

As fate would have it, an excited Chief Adams told the board that the district was a recipient of the Safer grant in September. That mean the rehiring of the 34 and that the 12 facing the next layoff were safe for the time being.

"We were fortunate and received the largest amount for our size of department and the district we cover.

"I'm hoping we secure it again. It is based on needs and Lehigh with its vast land certainly needs the grant," Adams said.

He said that Congress had dwindled the Safer grant total down to $380 million this year, somewhat less four years ago.

'It's hard to predict if we will get the grant. We can justify the need as we previously did," he said.

The last Safer grant brought $48.9 million to the District. "It's very competitive with a lot of fire departments hoping to get a share of the grant.

"But one thing is for sure," the chief said, "without the Safer grant there will be 34 firefighters laid off in August.

He said that if the Lehigh Fire District were to be awarded another grant, the board of commissioners which is composed now of four members since the death of Kevin Shea, would have to vote to accept it.

The chief said it is only natural that the morale at the department is not good.

"In fact, it is negative right now. Nobody know how this all will end. If people lose their jobs, they are with a livelihood. Everyone wants an answer and we can't provide one," the chief said.

Mark Zasloff is one of the 34 firefighters who is waiting word. He lives in Coral Springs and spends a nine-day commute to Lehigh, he said, just to have a job.

He has been with the Lehigh Fire District since Nov. 20 of 2006.

"I'm trying to view it very optimistically. I hope that we are able to get the grant again and so are all the firefighters here. There is a great need in this 144-square miles of Lehigh," he said.

Closer to his heart, Zasloff says he has four children to support and without a job, that can be devastating in todays' down economy.

If we get it, this board must accept it," he said. Nobody expects the board to reject the Safer grant if it comes through.

And when will the fire district know, the chief said he wasn't sure, but probably with a few months.

"It's going to take a lot of time for them at FEMA to go through each application," he said.

With hope in the air now that the Safer grant has become available, the board of commissioners at its Jan. 24 meeting voted to extend Chief Adams' contract for another two years. It could be considered a vote of confidence.

District Commission Chairman Jeff Berndt said making the extension would bring stability to the District.

The topic was not on the agenda but was brought up at the beginning of meeting held at Fire Station 104 on Sunshine Blvd and 16th Street. All meetings are held there now and not at the Sheriff's substation.

Meanwhile, union negotiations are underway between the District and union members. Berndt noted that the District is seeking for employees of the district to accept a pay cut along with other unpopular concessions.

In a sweeping statement, Berndt said the district needed consistency at the top and said he hoped that to extend the chief's contract, he would accept. His salary is in the ballpark of around $133,000, which according to those who there, said Commissioner Larry Becker said the salary is in the middle range when compared to other fire districts in Southwest Florida.

But Commissioner Linda Carter objected. Carter said the chief had not been given an annual review for four years.

So a special meeting date has been set for Feb. 13, according to Berndt. Information will be available to evaluate the chief.

According to those who attended the meeting Cathy Kruse, who usually speaks up at every meeting during the public discussion session, said she was not happy over the decision to

extend Adams' contract. According to new accounts, she termed the decision as a dog and pony show. The chief acknowledged that some people were unhappy with him for various reasons but that overall, he had heard others who support him, which is exactly what the board did in its vote of confidence.

But right now, everyone's waiting for news of whether Lehigh will again be lucky and get a Safer grant to keep the 34 firefighters.

Without it, the future of the department is in jeopardy. In past polls, the public doesn't show any interest in helping the department with an annual modest assessment fee. And voters would have to approve of it in an election.

Overall, as for the community, there appears to be little interest in what happens to the department. Few members of the community's 87,000 people never turn out to meetings and very few, if any, voice their opinions in the local media. Most who attend meetings are employees of the district.

"It's something you can't predict," Adams said, again referring to the Safer grant. "We have the need and it would appear because of our size, we have one of the greatest needs of all that applied."

"All we can do is just wait and see what happens," he said.



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