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Grant funding paves way for city to hire 15 firefighters, but opens old wounds

It should have been cause for celebration, but instead reignited simmering flames around the city’s fire department.

On Friday, U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine announced that the city had received $3.5 million through the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant program.

The money will be used to hire 15 firefighters over three years, a welcome reprieve to a department stretched thin to keep ambulances operating among rising calls for service. Typically, it would have required a local match, but that was waived because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the funding dredged up old disputes between the city’s former fire chief and outgoing City Manager Tarron Richardson.

The grant was announced by the senators on Friday and, during Monday’s City Council meeting, Richardson said it was his leadership that led to the funding. He lauded the financial savings to the city while lambasting local media coverage of his tenure and leadership decisions of Former Fire Chief Andrew Baxter.

“[The grant] saved taxpayer dollars by providing us with funding for 15 firefighters,” he said during the meeting. “But by reporting this story in that manner, it would change the narrative of what [The Daily Progress] has continuously tried to do, which is portray me in a negative light.”

Richardson announced his resignation earlier this month, effective Sept. 30. He will receive a lump-sum severance payout of $205,000, equivalent to one year’s salary, and have city health insurance for another year.

“The SAFER Act award for 15 personnel will allow us to maintain sufficient staffing on fire apparatus, while also adequately staffing the needed daily medical transport units,” Interim Fire Chief Emily Pelliccia said in a statement. “This additional staffing will allow the department to be less reliant on overtime to meet the current system demands, which should reduce department expenses as well as the fatigue and stress on our personnel, which is a real problem right now.

Baxter and city documents contradict Richardson’s characterization during the meeting of personnel needs in the department and the grant process.

Baxter resigned in the summer over his disputes with Richardson over the future of the department.

Early in his tenure, one of Richardson’s concerns was ballooning overtime costs in the department. Firefighters have struggled to keep up as calls for coverage have increased but staffing levels haven’t risen.

Baxter said in the early days of Richardson’s tenure, he told the new city manager that the department could make do with 12 new firefighters to address staffing shortages. The proposal would have cost $1.3 million, but Baxter said it would have saved money in the long run.

However, Richardson suggested Monday that Baxter wanted to hire 15 positions all at once during the current fiscal year. Richardson said he wanted to find funding from other sources than the general fund and had proposed hiring three firefighters a year over five years.

In a later interview, Richardson said that the department was fluctuating between a request for nine and 15 positions, with 15 being the highest number.

Richardson said Monday that he told Baxter to find other funding options for the personnel or, alternatively, he would support funding three firefighters a year over five years.

In response, Baxter said “He’s lying.”

“He never once had a conversation with me about phasing in firefighters,” he said. “That’s a complete fabrication.”

Baxter contends that Richardson only supported adding staff in any capacity once there was “public pressure” from the firefighters union.

“The only time he ever engaged with me in a discussion about staffing that was not him telling me to shut down an engine company or ‘you’re never going to get nine firefighters,’ it was at the public budget session when all the firefighters were there in their yellow T-shirts,” Baxter said Tuesday.

At that work session, Richardson said he was focused on shifting resources to address staffing issues and was not in support of adding positions immediately.

“What I’m saying is that is a lot of money all at once, but if you do it progressively over time, we can be able to get to certain places,” he said at the meeting. “But doing it all at once — you know and I know that’s not realistic — but we can look at a plan for us to move forward.”

Richardson disputes Baxter’s characterization.

“It wasn’t about public pressure, I didn’t have any public pressure to add firefighters,” he said on Wednesday. He also pointed out an ongoing push to hire more positions during the tenures of former City Manager Maurice Jones and former Interim City Manager Mike Murphy that weren’t met.

When Richardson unveiled his initial budget proposal, it did not include any funding for increased staffing. After the budget was cut to account for the pandemic, no new positions were included.

Richardson acknowledged Wednesday that before the pandemic he had planned to start phasing in new positions in fiscal 2022, which starts July 1, 2021.

City spokesman Brian Wheeler said that Richardson has “repeatedly” told Pelliccia that he would support three positions if the money was available after the full impact of the pandemic on the fiscal 2020 budget was known.

Mayor Nikuyah Walker said during the meeting on Monday that the council was open to restructuring the department, but she didn’t agree with Richardson’s characterizations of the request for more personnel.

“What I want to say, from a council perspective, at least from my memory, including the conversations that I had with you, I don’t think anyone was requesting that you hire all of those individuals at one time from my recollection, at least I was not,” she said.”

In a later interview, Richardson agreed with Walker’s statement.

“The council wasn’t asking for it all at once, it was Baxter who was asking for it all at once,” he said. “I think they understood the budget implications if we funded it all at once.”

Baxter’s concerns during the budget process were centered around what he felt was Richardson’s push to reduce overtime costs at the expense of services and lack of understanding for emergency responses. He detailed his concerns with Richardson in his resignation letter.

One of the key focal points in the early budget process was an allegation that Richardson wanted to shut down an engine crew. Richardson denied the claim at the time and this week said it was Baxter’s idea, not his.

Baxter provided The Daily Progress with audio recordings of several meetings he held with Richardson.

During one of the recorded meetings, Richardson continuously asks Baxter how to maintain its current level of service if the department needed to make large cuts or was short on staff.

“What would be the option for the coverage if you had to get rid of an engine company?” Richardson asked Baxter at a January meeting, according to a recording of the conversation.

When Baxter said that the reduction wouldn’t be safe for the community or firefighters, Richardson said, “I don’t think it’s less safe.”

“I understand that sometimes we have to reduce service. If you didn’t have a specific engine but you still had three stations to cover and didn’t have people who had the capability of covering those staffing things, sometimes you’ve got to do that. Sometimes you have to do that,” he said. “It’s not the best practice that we would want but sometimes you have to think about it in that way. And I’m saying that if you had to think about it that way, what would you do as fire chief?”

Richardson said during the meeting in question, the conversation with Baxter focused on solutions if the department was understaffed on certain shifts and unable to provide firefighters for all its apparatus. He said it was not a push to reduce funding.

“When he said it wouldn’t be safe for the firefighters, what I was saying if you don’t have enough personnel to cover a place or shift, look at it holistically,” he said.

In a recording of a March meeting, Richardson said “If we can’t get some other men in right away, what are the other options? All I keep getting is men, men, men.”

To support Richardson’s assertion that Baxter suggested pulling an engine crew, Wheeler provided a memo authored by Baxter in early March with a plan to cut overtime costs. The memo says that the department could remove Fire Medic 1 from the Ridge Street firehouse and Fire Medic 10 from the Fontaine Avenue station.

However, the memo was only authored after Richardson sent a formal letter to Baxter requesting a written plan-of-action. The letter, obtained this summer through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, says that Baxter became “very combative” during previous meetings about reducing overtime.

According to emails provided by the city, the grant proposal moved forward in late April, well after it was clear that Richardson was not going to increase staffing. Richardson said the grant is an example of fiscal-minded leadership, saying it was only possible through his direction for Baxter to find other funding sources.

Baxter, however, said that the SAFER grant was his idea, not Richardson’s.

“For him to characterize this as something he was aware of, that’s not true. That’s another lie,” Baxter said. “He is trying to, in my view, salvage his reputation for his next city manager job. … He can have his own opinion, but he doesn’t get his own set of facts.”

The city wasn’t the only one to receive funding from the grant program. Albemarle County was awarded $1.9 million and will use the funds to cover 10 positions in Crozet and Pantops.

After Richardson’s statement during Monday’s council meeting, Councilor Heather Hill shifted the conversation to the benefits of the grant.

“Getting this type of grant is very important,” she said. “I think that everyone is very excited about the opportunities this can provide our fire department. I’m going to leave it at that.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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