The City of Long Beach will apply to a SAFER grant that, if approved, could provide $4.8 million in funds for Engine 17. But the grant has stipulations and, if the City can’t meet the staffing requirements, they could have to pay back the grant in full.
At their Tuesday, March 9 meeting, the Long Beach City Council directed City Manager Tom Modica to prepare the federal grant application, which is due this Friday.
The move comes against city staff recommendation. In a March 3 memo, staff warned councilmembers that the City is “very unlikely to be able to comply with the terms of the SAFER grant and even if accepted, the City would likely have to return the grant money in the future.”
Even if services are propped up by federal relief funds this coming year, the grant program spans three years, giving plenty of time for budget shortfalls to affect fire services.
The grant requires that Engine 17 keep base staffing levels for the duration of the grant period. But, as the pandemic has proven, the City’s future budget is uncertain. Cost-cutting to Engine 17 could trigger a grant default, and cost-cutting is expected.
Just last year, the council approved a budget that includes a requirement for the Fire Department to cut $1.9 million from their budget. If the city accepts the SAFER grant, these reductions would have to be absorbed by other City departments.
Engine 17, though, serves an important role in Long Beach. Located near Sterns Park to the east of Signal Hill, the engine was restored in 2019 after an eight-year hiatus.
After its restoration, response times were reduced by one minute citywide. Engine 17 services the 90804 and 90815 zip codes, the former of which is the most densely populated zip code in the city.
When Engine 17 isn’t running, Engine 10, one of the busiest in the city, has to pick up the slack.
“It takes a very busy fire engine out of Central Long Beach, out of their area of response,” said Councilmember Daryl Supernaw, who represents District 4 where the engine is located.
He pointed out that the engine is also located adjacent to one of the city’s fire training facilities.
“Every recruit that trains at our training center gets to watch Station 17 on a daily basis,” Supernaw said. “It’s critically important that these recruits, these rookies, see a fully-functioning fire station, one that includes a fire engine.”
Councilmembers joined Supernaw in support. Though the grant comes with risks, the council won’t have to decide to accept the grant until later this year.
“It doesn’t hurt to apply, especially for money from the federal government,” Councilmember Al Austin said. “We do know that there are strings attached. But this is a prudent move, I believe, to help us outline a strategy moving forward for our fire services.”
The next Long Beach City Council meeting will take place Tuesday, March 16 at 5 p.m. via teleconference.