The South Sioux City City Council voted 6-1 Monday, Sept. 25, in favor of hiring five new firefighters with the assistance of a federal grant. Councilman Bruce Davis recorded the sole nay vote and Councilman Oscar Gomez and Mayor Rod Koch were absent.
Fire chief Clint Merithew applied for a FEMA grant in January that would cover 75-percent of the new staff's salaries for the first two years and 25-percent for the year after. The base salary for a firefighter is $42,000 and $47,000 for a paramedic.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), South Sioux City should have a minimum of five firefighters responding immediately to house fires, a standard which has never been met this year due to low staffing. Hiring five additional firefighters will ensure three firefighters are on staff at all times. Merithew hopes to have all five hired and ready by the end of the year.
Additionally, Siouxland Paramedics, South Sioux City's backup paramedic service, will be ceasing their emergency services beginning Jan. 1, 2018, which means the additional staff will be needed to ensure immediate response and adequate personnel for the citizens of Dakota County.
The issue was discussed and debated for several weeks before the Monday vote, where it was debated further.
Councilmen Jack Ehrich and Jason Bowman noted that the city needed more firefighters but were concerned with the sustainability of paying the salaries once the grant's funds become exhausted in three years. Merithew responded with several ideas, including charging surrounding communities for emergency services. Dr. Rick Colwell, medical director for the county, noted that if there are already numerous ideas to sustain the new firefighters' salaries, the city should be well prepared to handle the situation in three years.
“Look at all the ideas we had here tonight,” Colewell said. “These are intelligent people coming up with these ideas and I have no doubt we can make it work.”
Koch was favorable to hiring the firefighters.
“The safety of the city is my number one concern,” he said over the phone during Monday's meeting. “Our city is growing and we're either going to be ahead of this thing or we're going to be behind it.”
Flatwater Crossing, Ho-Chunk, Inc.'s new riverfront housing development, is expected to bring 1,000 housing units to the community between apartments, townhomes, and single family homes.
Davis said that all city departments, including water works, are intended for public safety and he didn't believe it wouldn't be right to funnel so much money into the fire department.
Councilman Dennis Nelson admitted that he came into Monday's meeting thinking he would vote down the proposal, but after listening to data presented by Colwell, Merithew, and city grant administrator Tami Bailey, his mind was changed.
“There's no sense jeopardizing South Sioux City,” he said.
Several members of the fire department attended Monday's meeting and applauded when the decision passed.
“I can't say enough for the council for making that decision,” Merithew said.