$2.3 million grant for reopening Fire Station 6 at risk

Federal money is a no go if city of Vancouver, firefighters don’t agree on contract by Sept. 1

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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A looming deadline could jeopardize the reopening of Vancouver’s Fire Station 6 — the city and its firefighters union have until Sept. 1 to reach an agreement on a contract, or the city council has said it will not accept a $2.3 million federal grant.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded a grant in March to hire 13 new firefighters and restaff the currently closed station at 3216 N.E. 112th Ave.

The catch: The grant mandates that the city must keep its fire department staff at the same level as when it received the grant, meaning that if layoffs are necessary, other departments would shoulder all the burden.

But Vancouver and its rank-and-file firefighters have been at loggerheads over a new contract since spring. The workers and administration were set to go to state arbitration, but when they learned of the grant, the parties began meeting again.

Without a picture of just what firefighter labor costs might be, the Vancouver City Council said that they could not accept the money.

“We are not able to commit to the terms of the grant without that knowledge,” City Manager Eric Holmes said this week.

When the city got the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant, it announced that the station, shuttered Jan. 1 due to budget cuts, could reopen by June. The department notified 13 people they are conditionally hired, and those new firefighters have been waiting to start since May. VFD’s response times across the city have slowed 15 to 20 seconds without Station 6, the fire chief reported in July.

Yet months have ticked by, and no contract has emerged.

Vancouver has until Sept. 1 to begin spending the federal money. If the two sides come to an agreement before then, city council members can draft a resolution saying they’ll take the grant, Chief Financial Officer Lloyd Tyler said. The city council will then adopt a supplemental budget that includes that money.

The last city council meeting of the month is Aug. 22, meaning the fire union and city will have to come to an agreement before then —unless the city council calls a highly unusual special meeting.

“There’s a little more time, but not a lot more time,” Tyler said.

The agenda for Monday’s city council meeting does not mention any resolution but does include an hourlong executive session on labor strategy.

Both Holmes and Firefighters Union President Mark Johnston declined to comment on which points remain unsettled in negotiations.

Both also sounded unsure if an agreement would be struck.

“I’m trying to be optimistic,” Holmes said. “It’s in my nature.”

A deal “may or may not be,” Johnston said. “I can say we’re still exploring every avenue to come to a mutual resolution that will benefit the local, benefit the city and benefit the taxpayers.”

Johnston said no meetings have been officially scheduled, but both sides are flexible to meeting on short notice. He said that it was ultimately the city’s call on whether or not to take the grant.

“The union doesn’t hire anyone, theunion doesn’t accept or reject federal grants; that’s the city’s role,” Johnston said.

Urging from neighbors

The Image Neighborhood Association, where Fire Station 6 is located, and the Fruit Valley Neighborhood Association both wrote letters this week urging the city council to accept the grant.

“In the past seven months, we have seen delayed response times from two and a half minutes to nine minutes above other areas of Vancouver,” the neighborhood’s executive board wrote. “For the safety of our families and neighbors, we urge you to act quickly and accept this SAFER grant before that deadline.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood; www.twitter.com/col_cityhall; andrea.damewood@columbian.com.