Payson Still Waiting For Firefighter Grants

Town makes it past the first cut, but still needs federal help to staff its third fire station

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No news, is good news.

At least, that applies at the moment to Payson’s wait for a federal grant to staff its new, third fire station.

Payson is currently building a third fire station with leftover bond money, even though it can’t afford the $750,000 to $1 million cost of putting an additional three-man crew in the station once it’s finished this spring.

The town has nestled all its hopes in a basket of federal SAFER grants, which could pay the salaries and benefits of two or three firefighters for three years.

So the town council has been holding its collective breath waiting for word from the feds and hoping they don’t have to mothball the new fire station as soon as they finish it.

Last month, they let out a little gasp of that held breath when the town didn’t get a “Dear Town” letter from the feds — as Payson passed the deadline for the first round of grant rejections. So the town made the first cut. But it could take months more for the town to find out whether it snagged one of the eagerly sought-after grants.

“What we’re trying to do is help people 3,000 miles away (in Washington, D.C.) understand the needs of a little, somewhat isolated rural community,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.

Ironically enough, the much worse financial plight of many big fire departments nationwide may actually work in Payson’s favor. The guidelines for getting a SAFER grant limit the funding to hiring additional firefighters — not replacing local money already allocated for firefighters.

Faced with financial crisis nationwide, many cities have laid off firefighters and police — which makes them effectively ineligible for a SAFER grant.

Payson also hopes that the need to provide emergency services to the huge flow of motorists hurtling through town on highways 260 and 87 will prove a winning argument. The third fire station would provide extra firefighters and paramedics to cope with major crashes on the highway, which often result in multiple, severe injuries that can strain local resources.

“Yet local taxpayers have to pay those costs out of their pockets,” said Evans of the frequent need to respond to highway accidents.

That might provide an additional argument to boost Payson’s plea for help staffing a third fire station.

The town took advantage of the slump in land values and a drop in construction costs due to the recession to build the third station at a cost some 50 percent less than its last fire station, thanks to more than $1 million in leftover bond money.

However, the town will eventually have to add as many as nine firefighters to its force to provide a three-man crew around the clock. That could raise payroll costs by perhaps $1 million annually at a time when the town has no reserves and is still struggling to cope with a big drop in revenues due to the sales tax slump and the collapse of the building industry locally.

Last year, the town imposed a hiring freeze and a clampdown on overtime that on some shifts forced the fire department to put just two firefighters on each truck. Advocates for a third fire station say that it fulfills a promise made to voters when they approved the bond issue several years ago. They say it will cut several minutes off the response time in the eastern portions of the city — especially houses in the country clubs on the boundary between Payson and Star Valley.

Critics have said the town cannot afford to increase its force of firefighters by one-third right now and that Payson should have instead maintained its contract with neighboring Hellsgate Fire Department.

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