Fire Chief Proposes, Council Questions, Adding Four Firefighters

The Town Council and Fire Administration debated adding four firefighters to the budget Monday night, as overtime costs remain an issue for the department.

Londonderry Fire Chief Darren O’Brien and members of the Budget Committee argued overtime costs are a symptom of the Fire Department’s being understaffed and that increased demand for fire services, combined with growth of the community, necessitate adding the firefighters.

Town Manager Kevin Smith agreed that with multiple significant developments coming into town, one of them an assisted living community, the department will need the additional personnel.

“I talked to the Chief about the net reduction in overtime by adding the personnel – we’re adamant that if we add the bodies, there should be a reduction in overtime,” he said. “We should see a reduction in overtime because they will be able to staff at 10 firefighters per battalion. If they add another firefighter per battalion, staffing will be at 11 firefighters, and if one is out and the battalion is down to 10 firefighters, they won’t have to fill the shift with overtime.”

The reduction in overtime if the four firefighters are added is $109,000, which nets out to a total cost of $203,000, with the reduction in the overtime line to be added to the operating budget.

“My understanding was that we’re not even going to look at adding firefighters until the overtime issue is resolved,” said Councilor Joe Green, noting the Firefighter’s Union and the Town have yet to agree on a re-working of shift schedules that would address overtime costs.

“We’ve been talking about this for four years and overtime has continued to go up and up,” he said. “You’re selling this like it’s going to be a savings when in reality it was supposed to fix a problem last year. We’re in the same place as last year, but we’re getting four additional firefighters.”

O’Brien said he respects that some issues need to be worked out with the union, but argued that his job as an administrator of the Fire Department is to consider what the demand for services is in the town and create a budget that meets those demands.

“You’re trying to nickel-and-dime them from the current increase in demand. With the added possibilities of other developments coming, this department is already understaffed,” Budget Committee member Greg Warner said. “Overtime is a symptom of understaffing. It means they don’t have enough people to get the job done. They’re not a business. They don’t have the option of being late, and as citizens we don’t want them to be late.”

Warner noted four additional firefighters at a cost of $283,000 is pretty minimal.

Battalion Chief Jim Roger said the department is trying to stay ahead of the curve and plan responsibly for a number of new developments expected to come online in the coming years, noting new hires take six months to train.

O’Brien and Roger maintained that regardless of whether or not the Fire Union and the Town are able to work out the scheduling issue to address overtime costs, the department will see a need for significantly more firefighters in the coming years – in total, the department needs 12 additional firefighters at a cost of $1.3 million.

O’Brien and Roger recommend bringing on a few each year to slowly adjust to the Town’s growth.

“What’s going to change?” Councilor John Farrell asked. “We’re in the same situation we have been in for the last five years. Nothing has changed.”

O’Brien said he thinks reducing overtime by $109,000 in the next year with the four additional firefighters is reasonable.

“If the bottom-line budget is x, you got to figure out what will get cut to keep personnel,” Farrell said. “What will you do differently to get our support as the manager of your fire business? They’re legitimate questions. Every year we have had this discussion. I realize you can’t do anything about collective bargaining agreements, but what will you do differently?”

“The only way to get to 12 firefighters is incrementally,” O’Brien said, noting with Woodmont Commons and the dramatic progress on a development at Pettengill Road, the department will need the additional staff. “I think this is a good incremental approach.”

“But you’re not answering the money question,” Farrell said.

“The Chief is doing everything he can,” said Roger, noting the department has started dropping staffing levels from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m. and often must rely on mutual aid, which takes longer to arrive to an emergency. “Look at the budget, there’s no fat there. We’re doing whatever we can to stay within that budget.”

Smith said for FY15, the department’s overtime costs are under control and they are expected to meet the budgeted number at year-end. The last time the department came in under its budgeted amount for overtime was in 2007.

Following the meeting, Farrell said the question the department should be asking itself is how it plans to sell the additional firefighters to the voters.

Roger said he thinks the voters will understand the increased demand for services and need for additional firefighters to satisfy the growing call volume in town.

The Council will re-consider the additional firefighters at its next budget workshop. If the Council decides against adding the additional Fire staff to the budget, the four firefighters could be added through a Warrant Article with the support of 15 taxpayers.

Other proposed changes to the budget included withdrawing the $147,679 proposed Community Development Director position in the Town Manager’s budget, as well as the part-time Building Code Enforcement position; and the addition of $12,000 to the Information Technology budget for tax collection software.

“The software we use has been in place for several years and in the future it will be minimally supported by the vendor,” Controller Doug Smith said. “Through a series of meetings we came up with a solution for which the $12,000 is part of. The earliest we would see bills in 2015 would be between July and September.”

Smith noted the $12,000 includes the first-year maintenance costs, and moving forward the cost for maintenance is relatively similar to what the Town has been paying.

With all the proposed changes, the Town Manager reported the proposed budget is $20,000 below the default budget.

Smith also proposed adding $35,000 for ambulance leases in the default budget, which would have no budget impact for FY16, due to savings achieved by removing the Community Economic Development Director position. It would increase the default budget moving forward.

Smith said the impact of all the proposed changes on the bottom line is a tax rate 3 cents lower than the current tax rate of $5.17 per thousand, for a tax rate of $5.14.

“It would be the first two-year tax rate reduction in around 23 years,” Smith said.

Proposed Warrant Articles as of the Dec. 22 meeting total $18.4 million.

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