Layoffs averted after federal grant

LINDEN — Three months ago the city’s financial picture looked very bleak, but ironically things have turned around in the last few weeks thanks to millions in federal and state grants. Especially for the fire department.

In early May, city coffers were so strained the town council was seriously considering layoffs of police and firefighters in order to meet the 2-percent state imposed cap. Although the financial outlook is still not rosy by any means, two grants have lifted the spirits of not only elected officials but also the fire department.

Every year the city fire department has the opportunity to apply for a federal SAFER grant, or Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response; a grant that could put millions in their hands. Unfortunately competition for this grant is so stiff, the Linden Fire Department has not been able to win the funds. Until this year.

Aided by the efforts of Democrat Sen. Robert Menendez, who represents parts of Linden, the fire department is the recipient of the $2.4 million SAFER grant. Now the department can not only afford to hire 12 new firefighters, but also pay for their health benefits and pension. That means the city will not have to put out a penny for these new firefighters, something Mayor Rich Gerbounka and Fire Chief Joseph Rizzo were more than pleased about.

“How ironic is it that we were going to have to layoff firefighters and now here we are a few months later with a grant that will enable us to hire more? It’s a godsend, that’s for sure,” the mayor said Monday, adding that unlike many grants, the SAFER grant does not go to the county but directly to the city, so it will not be long before those new firefighters are aboard.

That would bring the fire department roster to 125, but with pending retirements looming, that number could drop down to around 115, according to Rizzo.
“We have tried to get that grant for at least six years,” Rizzo explained, but credited Deputy Fire Chief Joe Dooley with working hard to ensure this year they were the recipients of this national grant. That, he added, coupled with Menendez’s helping hand, helped plead the case for the fire department that is definitely unique because of its location.

“We have the largest oil refinery on the east coast, located in Linden, which makes us a little bit of a target,” said the fire chief, also pointing out that just the petroleum movement through Linden and oil storage from other companies gives one pause.

“It takes a lot of manpower to handle a fire at a refinery or oil storage tank,” Rizzo explained, noting that the grant will allow the department to maintain the number of firefighters they have now

“Without it, retirements would have brought us down lower than we should be,” he said, adding that he and the entire department were very grateful for Menendez’s help in securing the federal grant.

The SAFER grant was not the only good news the city received recently. According to Gerbounka, Linden was bestowed with a $1.1 million Transit City grant which will go directly to the beautification of the train station area.

“Actually it is three separate grants and we are the 23rd in the state to get this,” the mayor explained, adding that $100,000 of the grant can only be used for beautification at the train station.

“We are going to put in new bathrooms and replace the benches at the train station,” Gerbounka said, adding that the remainder of the grant will go to replacing the train trestle and improving the streetscape around the station. Adding a bonus to the remake will be murals done by art students.

“In mid-September Kean students are going to come do murals for us, which will beautify the station even more,” the mayor said, but stressed that despite these financial windfalls, the city still has to pass a municipal budget.

“In the next month we should be doing that, but it has been a hard pull getting under that 2 percent cap,” Gerbounka said, adding “it has been a rough year.”