Six proposed firefighter positions can no longer be funded using immigration defense funds, the Fremont City Council decided at a budget hearing Tuesday.
The resolution, presented by Councilmember Brad Yerger, was one of two proposed changes to the city’s 2021-2023 budget passed by the council, which also included project reprioritizations.
An ordinance approving the budget also had its second reading at the meeting, as Director of Finance Jody Sanders said a third reading was needed next week prior to the state’s deadline of Sept. 20.
“I believe at a prior meeting it was noted that the state has no way to penalize us if we choose not to turn in our state budget form on time,” she said. “However, the county clerk requires it in order to assess our property taxes, and state law requires us to do that by Sept. 20.”
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Many members of the public commented on the use of immigration defense funds to temporarily fund six firefighter positions as the city applies for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants.
Fremont residents like Ralph Larsen, Virginia Coy and Brenda Ray spoke out against the use of the funds, which were approved by Fremont voters in June 2010.
“Taking money out of this account for any other purpose is like taking money out of your retirement account,” Ray said. “When your earning years are over, if your retirement account has been used for something else, you have nothing.”
Steve Ray said he believed the city didn’t start the budgeting process early enough and urged the council not to “rush through” the second reading and use money from the defense fund.
“I don’t know how you expect the public to have a hearing when you haven’t talked about a lot of specifics,” he said. “They don’t even know what’s in it.”
Yerger expressed disappointment that public comment for the budget was held before several other items on the agenda were addressed, but Sanders said it was standard.
“Every time you have a public hearing and then it’s turned over to the council, even if it’s that same night, it’s still up to you to decide thumbs up, thumbs down.”
Yerger, who called the discussion “premature” made a motion to continue the second reading to Sept. 14, which Councilmember Glen Ellis agreed with.
“I’m disappointed that we’re voting on it so early on in the meeting when we have so many other options that we could have put it as the last item on the meeting,” Ellis said.
However, the motion to continue failed with a 3-4 vote. A motion to hold the second reading carried 5-2.
The council also discussed a series of questions posed by Ellis at its meeting last week that focused on the justification of areas of increase within the budget.
“Some of these answers sure would have been nice to have before the vote that just happened,” Ellis said. “It’s a shame that that vote had to take place right after the public hearing.”
The questions were answered by Sanders, who was thanked by Mayor Joey Spellerberg and Yerger, who said he still would have preferred getting the information sooner.
“We could have sat around the table and discussed these things instead of in this kind of a forum where we really can’t ask one-on-one questions and get to the answers. Other communities did it that way,” he said. “We put all this at the end and expected everybody to assimilate to this.”
Ellis also thanked Sanders, but said he had even more questions as a result and also wanted to see a roundtable discussion in the budgeting process.
Yerger also introduced a resolution to maintain the fund for the defense and enforcement of the immigration ordinance that was approved 6-1.
Despite Spellerberg’s proposed budget calling for the funds to be used to fund firefighter positions, Yerger said he spoke with Kris Kobach, whom the city has on retention in case of litigation.
In a letter written by Kobach, he stated that the fund has sent a clear message to anyone contemplating litigation and that an applied challenge to the ordinance could be made.
“If Fremont were to deplete the defense fund, it would send a message that Fremont is no longer willing to defend its ordinance,” he wrote.
Additionally, Kobach said the American Civil Liberties Union had more resources at its disposal now as compared to Donald Trump’s presidency and was now focusing on cities and counties.
Kobach also said the current situation at the border and employment opportunities in Fremont would result in more illegal immigration.
“In short, the current environment has created a perfect storm,” he wrote. “In my opinion, now is not the time for Fremont to be eliminating the excellent defenses it has put in place.”
Yerger agreed with Kobach’s comments and asked the council to question whether it would be appropriate to set the fund aside at this time.
“There are other ways for us to fund the firefighters,” he said. “We need to find those, we can find those, but in the meantime, we need to do what we need to do for the public on this matter, and that is to set these funds aside just as they were earmarked for their original intent.”
Councilmember Mark Jensen said the funds would only be used if SAFER grants could not be obtained and said Fremont Fire Chief Todd Bernt believed the city had a good chance at doing so.
“After 10 years of never being challenged, and as long as we don’t administer it any differently, there’s no reason to believe that it will be challenged,” he said. “And even if it is and even if we use those funds, we can replace them. We’ll take care of it.”
Councilmember Mark Legband also said the fund would only be used temporarily and not entirely.
“We may have to use it for a while until we get the SAFER grants or until we find other means,” he said. “But we’re not talking about depleting it.”
A motion by Jensen to indefinitely continue the item failed with a 3-4 vote.
Ellis said he didn’t believe the city getting a SAFER grant was probable and that funding for firefighters could be found elsewhere.
“I believe that the best thing for us to do is simply just not hit the hornets’ nest and let that fund sit there until we as a city decide where we’re going to go with this,” he said.
Spellerberg said the council had meetings in the past to discuss using the fund to pay for other items, including improvements to the police department in 2017.
“This is not something that has not been done before,” he said. “Considering that it’s two years of backup of funding for firefighters for six, there’s still money left in there, lots of money to defend this ordinance after that.”
After the resolution was approved 6-1, another resolution by Yerger to direct city staff to find staffing for the firefighter positions without using the immigration defense fund also passed 6-1.
“They’re probably not going to hire them all at once anyway,” he said. “So the fact that we budget for all of them doesn’t mean we’re going to spend it all initially anyway, but we’ve got to budget them in the first place.”
Ellis said although it may be difficult, he believed the city could find the funding as it has in instances such as the Fremont Southeast Beltway project.
“I think we need to bring firefighters on now just because we’ve seen this over and over again where their firefighters are short-handed. They’re showing up to a structure fire with two guys and a truck,” he said.
Another resolution created by Yerger to swap priorities between the 32nd Street repaving projects and South Clarmar Avenue and Railroad Street stormwater and street project was unanimously approved.
In the initial budget, Yerger said the 32nd Street projects near the Technology Park were prioritized higher than the Clarmar/Railroad project, which would pave a gravel section.
However, Yerger said the budget didn’t adequately reflect the prioritization wishes of the council from a project discussion last July.
“They’re about equal in amount, so it really doesn’t affect much of the overall budget,” he said. “It’s just which project’s got the priority.”
The motion also included the consideration of using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for the project.
Yerger’s final resolution to fund a downtown police station and future fire station with voter-approved bonds funded by public safety sales tax failed with a 2-4 vote and one abstaining vote.
While the budget has $10 million in reserves set aside for either improvements to the police station or a new building, Yerger said he wanted to use bonds approved by voters.
“Why would we do that?” he said. “Well, because it gives the voters the opportunity to still weigh in on this matter, which they did, and they clearly voted this down before.”
Yerger said the resolution came from a proposal from Ellis, who said Columbus followed a similar approach and wanted to see the police building stay in the downtown area.
However, Legband and Councilmembers Sally Ganem and Dev Sookram said they opposed placing the building downtown.
“Some things will fit, and some things won’t,” Sookram said. “And it’s clear that our police department has slowly grown out of it.”
Yerger said he was happy to modify the budget to remove the word “downtown,” but Sanders said the resolution was essentially the same as what was in the budget.
“It does use reserves, but I would ask you as a council,” she said, “what better use of general fund reserves and public safety sales tax reserves could you imagine than for a law enforcement center?”