The Town Council heard a list of three options from Town Manager Kevin Smith but chose a fourth option proposed by Councilor Tom Freda to deal with overtime overruns at the fire department.
At the Thursday, Jan. 23 Town Council meeting, a continuation of the previous Monday’s public hearing, Smith told the Council that at its request, he had put together “a couple of potential warrant articles that had been discussed during this entire process, and what effect it would have on the bottom line. I essentially put three options together – all things that were discussed previously.”
Smith said one option is to fully staff the fire department, requiring the hiring of 16 additional firefighters so as to staff each shift at 14 persons.
The total cost of that is a little over $1.4 million, Smith said, noting it would have an impact on the tax rate of $0.42 per thousand.
Town Council chairman John Farrell noted the National Fire Protection Association standard is to staff at 14.
“In the perfect world, that would be the preference,” Farrell said.
Smith’s second option is a request for $240,000 in overtime funds to make up for the overage. Adding that to the overtime budget line, it would have an impact of $0.07 on the tax rate.
His third option is a hybrid of the first and would hire a deputy fire chief to help with the overtime currently accrued by the Battalion Chiefs, as well as to hire eight additional firefighters and put them on the shifts to help with overtime. That total cost would be $887,576, with an impact of $0.25 to the tax rate.
Farrell asked how hiring a deputy chief would alleviate overtime costs.
Smith said currently, the Battalion Chiefs earn the greatest amount of their overtime in two ways – one, if a Battalion Chief is out, another Battalion Chief covers that post. “There’s only four of them,” Smith said. “In addition, they take on a lot of administrative overtime because the Chief uses them to attend meetings for him and perform functions the Chief would normally do, when he is unable to do so. So as a result of that the Battalion Chiefs currently, of the total overtime costs, earn 27 percent of the total overtime.”
Smith said that hiring a Deputy Fire Chief, though it would be a net cost to the town, would significantly reduce the Battalion Chief overtime because the Deputy Chief would be on salary.
“The net cost we figured out would be about $35,000 for the town, and then hiring the additional firefighters would raise the coverage on each shift, causing there to be an increased net increase to the town but a decrease in overtime because you have more people on shift,” Smith said.
Councilor Joe Green asked if the Deputy Fire Chief and the eight additional firefighter option would eliminate all the overtime.
“It comes pretty close to eliminating most of the overtime,” Smith responded. “Having the eight additional firefighters means you would have staffing levels of 12 on every shift. So you would be pretty darn close to eliminating most if not all of the overtime at that point.”
Fire Chief Darren O’Brien said that by bringing each shift to a staffing level of 12, they could drop down to 10, which is where the department currently is with staffing, if needed and still not incur overtime, whereas now at 10, dropping down to any level would incur overtime.
O’Brien said he thought option number three, the hiring of the Deputy Chief and eight firefighters, was the best.
Budget Committee chair Chris Melcher said $166,000 was in the budget that was below default, and that money could be used.
“Your administrative savings was about $44,000 and there’s other potential savings, about $70,000 in retirement and other cost avoidance savings?” Freda asked.
Smith said that was correct.
“So based on that, that would give us about $105,000,” Freda said.
Smith said that if the savings were realized, the department could staff at 10 with $105,670.
“So as a fourth option then, we could add $105,670 to the overtime budget and that would add about $0.03 impact on the tax rate and still be under default,” Freda said.
Smith agreed and said that currently, the proposed budget was $135,000 under default. “So if you were to add an additional $105,000 you’d still be under default,” Smith said.
Green said he thought Freda’s suggestion was a viable option.
“We’ve been saying that in order to keep the town safe, we need to staff at 10, and I want to continue to staff at 10 at a minimum, but I don’t want to take dropping down to eight off the table. I think that we should staff the overtime this year,” Green said.
Green suggested doing a study to consider putting an ambulance at North Station and an ambulance at South Station and keeping the other four firefighters at Central Station if dropping to eight per shift at off peak times was required by the budget.
He noted that what was being discussed was not an additional warrant article but money that would come out of the budget while still keeping it below default.
“It will be $30,000 below default, it will not be a separate warrant article,” Farrell agreed.
Councilor Jim Butler said he believed that over the past two years, the council had created a leaner and more efficient government. Noting that his son, a Londonderry firefighter, is Local 3160 Union President James “Bo” Butler and is married to O’Brien’s daughter, he recused himself from the vote.
“I have confidence in the Town Manager and the Fire Chief to work collectively to make changes, however I believe that we need an independent consultant to address performance, staffing and organizational review,” Butler said.
A vote to accept the fourth option passed 4-0-1, with Butler recused.
Freda made a motion to adopt as the operating budget for Warrant Article 4 the sum of $28,054,908, leaving the default budget at $28,086,186, which would leave a difference of $31,278. Freda also made a motion to move the article to the warrant with a recommended yes vote.
The motions passed unanimously.
The Budget Committee present at the meeting also unanimously voted to recommend Article 4.