Joliet accepts federal firefighter grant money
By bob okon email@example.com August 20, 2012 10:28PM
Updated: September 22, 2012 6:35AM
JOLIET — The Joliet City Council ended a lingering dispute over a $2 million federal grant for firefighters by voting 7-2 Monday to take the money.
The vote came after assurances from city staff that not only would Joliet get eight firefighters paid for by the federal government, but the city would save nearly $2 million that otherwise would have been spent on fire department overtime.
Doubters said those savings could be washed away by a grant requirement that the firefighter force be fully staffed for the two years that Joliet gets the money. That requirement can be waived, but opponents said they were uneasy with the possibility that Joliet would have to pay to replace any firefighters who retire.
“I just don’t feel that this is sustainable,” said Councilwoman Jan Quillman, who along with Councilman Larry Hug voted against the grant.
And, Quillman said, she does not believe the city has the money to hire more police officers next year as planned without going to taxpayers for some kind of tax increase if the fire department is going to be fully staffed at the same time.
City Manager Thomas Thanas said he does not plan to seek a tax increase in the 2013 budget to pay for more police officers.
Thanas said the city does need to control overtime to balance its budget, and hiring firefighters with federal money is a way to do it. The other option, he said, would be to cut services by not staffing ambulances and closing fire stations.
The city has 201 firefighters now. The new hires will bring the firefighter force up to 209.
The police force, meanwhile, is down 60 positions from its peak number before the recession hit. The decline is due mainly to the number of police officers who took an early retirement incentive.
Councilman Robert O’Dekirk had previously called for the city to rebuild the police force before beefing up the fire department. On Monday, O’Dekirk voted for the grant but warned he would not support replacing a large number of firefighters.
Fire Chief Joseph Formhals said he could not predict how many firefighters would retire. But only three firefighters reach 30 years of service, the typical point of retirement, before the grant expires in 2014.