NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Firefighters are used to fighting flames, not a freeze.
Five weeks after voters passed a one-cent sales tax, the North Little Rock Fire Department is under a hiring freeze and short nine firefighters.
According to letters we obtained, the city hired nine new firefighters to fill the vacancies only to tell them within the week that they were out of a job. That Sept. 13 letter read:
"Due to unforeseen circumstances, the City of North Little Rock is currently under a hiring freeze for our Fire Department. Please, disregard the conditional letter of hire you were sent September 7, 2017, as we are not going to be hiring any new firefighters at this time. Sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused."
"We're concerned about that not just for the safety of the staff of the fire department but when we're understaffed, it puts the citizens of North Little Rock in harms way, too," said Brent Treece, the secretary and treasurer of North Little Rock Fire Department Local 35.
The city apologized to the hires for the mistake, explaining the letters were sent out without getting final approval.
"The fire department is, with all city departments, under a hiring freeze right now," said Nathan Hamilton, the city's communications director. "And that's because we're in the middle of budget season."
Hamilton said the nine new positions would have been added to 24 others that a grant created two years ago. Those 24 firefighters opened Station 11.
He said each one of them signed a letter saying they understood the grant expires this January, which means their jobs could as well.
"Our goal is to keep all of our firefighters, including those who are in the grant-funded positions even when their grant funding runs out," Hamilton said. "Those [nine] applicants are still on the list, at the top of the list, for if hiring opens up again."
According to an Aug. 9 press release from Mayor Joe Smith, the passing of the new one-cent sales tax would allow the city to keep a full police and fire force.
Treece was under the impression it would solve that problem sooner rather than later.
"These positions that are seemingly just going to just go away, a lot of the men and women that are in those positions are the ones that literally helped get this tax passed," he said.
But once the city lifts the hiring freeze, Hamilton could not say whether money generated from the new tax would immediately go to the 24 firefighters.
"I can't speculate," he said. "That's what the budget season is for: to figure out where we're at. We haven't collected any of that tax money yet. We just don't know how all of that works out."
However, Hamilton does know once the city collects money from the tax, $10 million of it will go to fire station improvements.
Treece and his colleagues have a meeting set up with Mayor Smith Oct. 10.
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