City will apply for grant to keep Engine 17, but fate of the East Long Beach engine remains uncertain

The city of Long Beach is applying for a $4.8 million grant to fund an East Long Beach fire engine despite warnings from officials that the city will likely not meet requirements of the grant and could have to return the money.

The SAFER grant (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) from FEMA would provide vital funding for the Long Beach Fire Department to extend the restoration of Engine 17, which is stationed near Stearns Park, but it could also compound projected budget deficits.

However, the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to submit an application for the grant before the Friday deadline.

Councilman Daryl Supernaw requested the application be submitted, pointing out the importance of Engine 17 to the city’s fire response network. When it was out of service, other engines from central and southeast Long Beach had to respond to its calls, which added crucial minutes to how long it took emergency responders to arrive on scene.

Supernaw also pointed out that Station 17 sits next to one of the city’s training facilities.

“I think it’s critically important that these recruits, these rookies, get to see a fully functioning station,” Supernaw said. “One that includes a fire engine.”

Engine 17 was brought back online in 2019 after the council allocated $4.7 million to fund it through the current fiscal year that ends in September. The engine was a budget casualty in 2011 and its removal hurt response times across the city.

A memo from City Manager Tom Modica warned that accepting the federal grant could be risky for the city because there are required staffing levels that must be maintained over the three-year span of the grant as a condition of receiving the funding.

The city is facing a projected $37 million funding deficit in the fiscal year that starts October 2022, which will bring “significant service reductions” that could include the fire department, Modica said. The current year’s budget also included a directive for the fire department to identify $1.9 million in cuts, ones that would have to absorbed by other departments for the city to remain in compliance with the grant.

If the city reduces its base level of firefighter staffing during the grant period, it would have to return the $4.8 million to FEMA. The city previously declined a SAFER grant from FEMA that it was awarded in September 2019 over concerns that it would not be able to comply with the requirements.

The threat of that did not deter the council from supporting the application Tuesday.

Councilman Al Austin said that it wouldn’t hurt for the city to apply for the funding, noting that the council would have to eventually vote on whether to accept the grant if it’s awarded to the city. Austin said that the grant could serve as an option that the council could consider down the road.

“We know that this grant comes with some level of risk, but at the same time we do value and pride ourselves on being a city that puts public safety as a high priority,” Austin said.

Austin added that the council does not want to reverse course on the progress its made in maintaining and restoring public safety services over the past few years.

Awards for the SAFER grants are expected to be announced in September, the same month that the council approves its next fiscal year budget.

Cuts to all departments are expected in the coming years despite a proposed plan unveiled by Mayor Robert Garcia on Monday that would use $30 million in federal aid to balance the 2022 fiscal year budget. If the council approves that plan March 16, it will likely spare the fire department from cuts this year—but doing the same in following years could be unavoidable.

Modica’s memo laid out options for accepting the grant money later this year, but they require shielding the fire department from cuts by passing them off to other departments or having a plan to pay back the federal government by setting aside $4.8 million over the next few years.

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Jason Ruiz has been covering City Hall for the Post for nearly a decade. A Long Beach resident, Ruiz graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in journalism. He and his wife Kristina and, most importantly, their dog Mango, live in Long Beach. He is a particularly avid fan of the Dallas Cowboys and the UCLA Bruins, which is why he sometimes comes to work after the weekend in a grumpy mood.