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FARMINGTON — Early voting begins Wednesday on a proposed sales tax increase in Bloomfield that would be used to pay the salaries of seven firefighters whose positions have previously been funded by a grant.

If the tax is not approved, the Bloomfield Fire Department will likely go back to being staffed primarily by volunteers, which firefighters say would impact their ability to serve residents.

The election comes during a time when the city is struggling to balance its budget. A decrease in the city's gross tax receipts has led the council to consider mandatory furloughs for employees. Implementation of the tax would make it impossible for the city to pass another sales tax increase for general city operations due to state law, which limits the amount of sales tax a municipality can levy. The city does not know how much money the proposed tax increase would generate, but the Bloomfield Fire Department hopes it will provide at least $450,000 a year that could be used to pay the salary of seven firefighters.

The $1 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant was awarded to the Bloomfield Fire Department in 2014 to help pay the firefighters' salaries through May, but the department had $200,000 left over at the end of the grant period, and FEMA approved an extension of the grant. The remaining grant money will fund the positions through the middle of October.

When faced with the expiration of the grant this spring, the department did not reapply for the federal grant.

"We would have had to let the guys go on May 15 to apply again," Assistant Fire XChief John Mohler said.

The grant opened the door for former volunteer firefighter Steven Gross to pursue his dream of becoming a professional firefighter. The Bloomfield native followed in his mother's footsteps when he began volunteering at the fire department. Gross said he did not realize how much behind-the-scenes work firefighters do before he became a full-time firefighter. Now, in addition to responding to calls, he also maintains equipment.

Fire Chief George Duncan said the department cannot function at its current level without full-time employees. Duncan and Mohler said the city has seen an increase in emergency calls and a decrease in volunteers since 2002. The department had about 15 volunteers last year and received more than 1400 calls.

Mohler said it would take about 100 volunteers to perform the duties of the seven full-time firefighters.

Chris Garcia, 19, has volunteered for the fire department for more than a year and is one of the department's volunteers. He said there have been times when he was unable to respond to calls.

"If we don't have these paid guys, nobody's going to be there," he said.

That is exactly what happened 75 times in 2013 prior to the fire department receiving the federal grant that paid for the full-time positions. Mohler said the department does not know what the calls were about because no one responded to them.

The situation that the fire department is now experiencing was not unforeseen. In 2014, when the department received the grant, the city manager warned that Bloomfield would not be able to maintain the new staffing levels after the grant expired, and he expressed concern that the city would have to pay the salaries of the firefighters once the grant expired.

But 2014 was not the first time the fire department had received such a grant. It also was awarded one in 2010, but Duncan later withdrew his request for the City Council to approve receipt of the grant after residents expressed concern about the financial situation of the city and the temporary nature of the grant, according to The Daily Times archives.

While those same concerns from 2010 still applied in 2014, Duncan presented a request for the council to accept the grant, and it was unanimously approved. Duncan said receiving the grant a second time was unique.

"We just felt that it was a great opportunity," he said.

While the council approved the grant, Duncan assured the council that the firefighters would understand that their jobs were based on grant funding. While each firefighter signed a contract acknowledging that his job could end when the grant expired, Duncan approached the council in March to ask for the sales tax increase, which would be 1/4 of 1 percent.

The grant allowed the fire department to “dramatically” improve its response time, Duncan said.

“We felt that we had proven what could be done,” he said.

Prior to receiving the grant, the department's response time during the daytime on weekdays was nearly five minutes, and on weekends or evenings, it was 10 minutes, according to Mohler. Now, the response time is a little longer than four minutes, regardless of time or day.

Mohler said the grant has saved Bloomfield residents money because the fire department has stopped blazes before a fire can do too much damage. The department estimates that the faster response item has prevented $8.5 million of property damage and loss.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.

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