The Stamford Board of Representatives needed a two-thirds vote in the affirmative to accept an almost $1,000,000 grant that would fund eight new firefighter positions in the city.
The proposition to accept the FEMA Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grant was denied by a vote of 23 Yay, 14 Nay by representatives upset with the process for how the firefighters would be hired.
The eight new recruits are already training amidst a group of 22 set to be hired by the city. Stamford Fire & Rescue needed 15 more bodies to bring them up to their desired minimum for firefighters in the city.
"They went ahead and hired these gentlemen before we approved the funding," said Representative Ralph F. Loglisci during Tuesday night's meeting. "They put them in with the rest of the class while they're training and I just don't know how we allow that kind of thing to happen."
The department had the board's permission to hire 14 more, but they never gave clearance to bring on an additional eight through grant money. Many representatives took issue with the fact that the rules were not followed and now they must make a decision regarding the futures of eight people because Stamford Director of Adminstration Mike Handler didn't follow proper protocol before telling them they were hired.
"I would think others might want to know how we ended up hiring eight people without an approval," Loglisci said. "Suppose we turn it down? What do you do with those eight people? [Handler] didn't seem all that sincere when he said, 'Oh, I take it all upon myself that I messed it up.' Yeah, well, it didn't seem too sincere to me."
Board Clerk Representative Annie Summerville defended Handler, saying so far, Handler has put himself in the hot seat. He reportedly admitting during the Fiscal Committee meeting earlier in the evening that he'd, "Screwed up," she said.
"In all fairness to the presenters to the Board of Representatives Fiscal Committee tonight, I didn't hear it the way Representative Loglisci heard it," said Summerville. "I heard them say 'I made a mistake, it's a possibility after the FEMA grant runs out these firemen can be let go. There's a possibility we can have them hired in attrition... Are we going to forgive? Are we going to not do that? And if not, what is the alternative. "
Representative Annie Selkovits Taylor pointed out the issue that these positions would be funded for two years, benefits included, through the grant but beyond that point, funds would have to be found elsewhere to staff these firefighters. The point should have been vetted through discussion by the board prior to making a decision about the hires.
Fiscal Committee Chair Jay Fountain said it was made clear to the potential firefighters they are hired under "grant position" status and could be relieved of duty at the time the funding runs dry. He also sided with Summerville, saying he felt the committee was given a good explanation of what had occurred, had a party claiming responsibility and didn't see it as a necessity to make the eight firefighters suffer because of the mistake.
"I think we had a very good explanation during the committee and I think we had the opportunity to ask questions that we needed and got the explanations that we did," said Fiscal Committee Chair Jay Fountain. "I think they expect a lot of turnover in the fire department this year and this will help put them in a position to cover that turnover and I think they'll see a major reduction in overtime because of this."
Others wanted to know why, if the city would need 15 firefighters to reach compliance, they hired 14 and brought eight more on through grant money, instead of using the grant money first and then hiring the remaining necessary to bring them up to the desired minimum.
In essence, taxpayers would have paid $988,848 less in taxes had Stamford skipped hiring eight new firefighters in addition to the eight being hired by the grant.
"Why didn't we hire seven firemen, and bring eight in under the SAFER grant?" said Representative Arthur Layton. "It would have saved the cost of hiring eight additional firemen to the city. I know the expectations of hiring these people are to replace retirements expected in the next three years. Why did we hire all these people, plus eight more? I'm not very happy with this process at all."
None seemed to recall the September 11th anniversary announcement by Chief Antonio Conte that the department would be moving to hire 22 new firefighters. But while the hirings may have been Conte's plan all along, someone along the way didn't follow the appropriate chain of command.
At the end of the day, the board sent accepting the grant back to the fiscal committee for further discussion. With the reported mistake of one man drawing the ire of more than a third of the Board of Representatives, the future of eight firefighters is now uncertain for another month.
"I don't think anyone has a problem with these eight guys," said Representative Joseph Coppola, Jr. "It's not a question about accepting this money, but about looking at the bottom line through proper procedure. "It's about putting the cart before the horse. It's not about not accepting the money. It's about the fact that we don't have the money yet, and somehow eight people were hired. Something happens to that money, and suddenly the taxpayers are on the hook for $1,000,000."