City seeks federal funds to hire more firefighters

Burlington’s city council has given the city’s fire department the go-ahead to apply for a federal grant that would allow it to beef up its force by four additional firefighters.

The council gave its blessing to this grant application on Tuesday after Jay Mebane, the city’s fire chief, laid out his department’s plans for this federal subsidy during a regularly-scheduled work session on Monday.

Mebane told the council that he and his colleagues had originally planned to seek seven new firefighters from this particular grant, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency offers each year to encourage the safe operation of local emergency services. Mebane said that the fire department had entertained this ambitious request after FEMA announced it would waive the local match that this grant ordinarily demands in light of a recent infusion of pandemic relief funds from Congress. He nevertheless added that his department has since dialed back its request in recognition of the cost that the city would bear after the grant’s expiration in three years.

Mebane went on to propose a more modest grant application for three new firefighters at a cost of $175,000 a year. According to Burlington’s city manager Hardin Watkins, the city would have scramble together some $184,000 in another four years to keep the new firefighters on staff after the grant’s expiration. He recommended that, if the fire department is successful in its grant application, the city should begin to set money aside in its next budget to cover the additional personnel expenses that the city would eventually have to incur.

Mebane told the council that the addition of these three extra positions would give the fire department the manpower it needs to operate more safely out in the field. He added that this staffing increase would bring the agency closer to a Class One insurance rating, which would lower the insurance premiums for local property owners, as was the case when the department achieved its current Class Two rating in 2018.

Mebane nevertheless conceded that his proposal for three new firefighters wouldn’t include a training position that had been included in the fire department’s original seven-person request.

Burlington’s mayor pro tem Kathy Hykes encouraged the fire chief to add this position back into his agency’s grant application.

“I know you’ve done all the numbers,” she told Mebane, “but I would suggest that you go with at least four [requested positions] to include the training piece in it.”

The mayor pro tem’s suggestion drew a cautious response from councilman Jim Butler, who emphasized that the city would ultimately have to pick up the cost of any additional firefighters it hires. Even so, councilman Bob Ward pressed for the inclusion of a fourth position on the grounds that the fire department needs the extra training officer regardless of whether or not FEMA approves the grant application.

“Four sounds good to me,” Ward told the rest of the council, “and I think we have vetted that well.”

Other March 4 edition Burlington news coverage from The Alamance News/

Rec director recommends against adding disc golf to city’s municipal golf course:

Council not interested in mayor’s suggestion to ditch traditional auditing firm:

City officials outline increased costs from allowing chickens in city backyards:

City council endorses plan to chip in $10,000 as part of $3.9 million renovation of Lakeside Mill:

And from Feb. 26 online story: Burlington police seek public’s help in finding nine suspects: