With a fire official telling the Town Council he would hold them responsible of anything happens because of staffing deficiencies, as previously reported in the Londonderry Times, Town Manager Kevin Smith said the voters have authorized a specific amount of money in the budget for both fire department staff and overtime.
And he noted that one of the things that has come out during the recent budget workshops is the difference between the amount of money the voters approved and amount needed to staff at 10 at all times.
Smith said that in FY 13, when the fire department started staffing 10 firefighters at all times, overtime salaries jumped from $613,086 in FY 12 to $738,946 for FY 13.
“My job as a town manager is to manage those numbers,” he said. “In order to staff a full complement of 10 firefighters on all shifts at all times, which means utilizing a significant portion of replacement costs, that means having to go beyond what the budgeted number is. The voters didn’t approve that. The voters said, ‘Here’s the budget we’ve given you, you have to manage to this number.’
“One of the things that the Council asked me to do was to come to them with various options that we could put on a ballot to try to, I think, accomplish two things – one, that the fire department is staffed appropriately at all times, and two, try to cut down on these overtime costs, whether that be done through hiring firefighters or adding money to the overtime budget,” Smith said.
Smith said that until the voters approve and authorize any increases in spending, it isn’t in his authority to spend more than what the voters authorized.
“The voters gave a certain number that they wanted to see spent as far as firefighter overtime, and it’s my job and the chief’s (LFD Fire Chief Darren O’Brien) job to try and meet that number as best we can, while at the same time trying to keep the community as safe as possible,” Smith said.
Smith said the budget does not have the money to staff at 10 at all times.
“So you have to try to work within what the limitations and parameters are and that’s what we’re doing right now, by changing our staffing patterns,” he said. “And until the voters say otherwise and authorize otherwise, we have to be able to meet our budget numbers at the end of the year. That’s what the Council hired me to do, to manage the budget, so that I’m not going over budget.”
Meanwhile, Town Council Chairman John Farrell said that when firefighters went from 48-hour work weeks to 42 hours, the overtime needed to pay those firefighters went up. He said any work over 42 hours is paid at overtime wages, whereas when firefighters worked 48 hours, all of their work was straight time.
“These guys were working 48-hour shifts,” he said. “They went down to 42 hours at the same rate of pay, and now they work 48 hours every week at six hours of overtime. That’s why the overtime budget is out of control.”
Farrell added that the firefighters received a 15 percent increase in their base wages. “They caused the problem, and the voters accepted it,” Farrell said of the firefighters’ contract, which requires voter approval.
“If you want the overtime, you go to the voters,” he said. “These guys are making on average $25,000 more a year than they were. They go around saying they don’t have enough staffing yet they are making more money than they’ve ever made, and they’re only working two (24-hour) days a week.”
Farrell said he has defended firefighters for years, and resents that they now place the blame on the Town Council.
Asked about the revenue the fire department brings in from the Elliot ambulance contract, Smith said the cost of running the ambulance and the revenue raised would not cover the needs of the fire department’s overtime.
“We been in contact with other towns and some of the councilors have asked about this, and I sent the information to the Council and gave them different models and different scenarios the other towns use, but in each scenario there would be a moderate increase to the tax rate because you still have expenses that would be in the general fund,” he said. “There’s an offset in revenues to expenses.”
“If you take what it actually costs to run the ambulance against the revenue, we actually lose money,” Farrell added.
He said the Town Council has “not been sitting on our laurels doing nothing. Two years ago we put something on the ballot to hire four firefighters and to add $350,000 of additional overtime to their budget. The council voted on it and sponsored it and the budget committee opposed it. The fire department did nothing to help sell it and it failed. What do you want from us?”