Fire Department Hopes to Cover Shortfall In House

The Fire Department plans to cover an anticipated shortfall in fiscal year 2015 with resources from within the Department’s other budgetary appropriations.

Controller Doug Smith reported the plan to cover the shortfall, which is estimated will be between $180,000 and $200,000, is comprised of three main components: maintain staffing levels of nine firefighters on a 24-hour basis, institute a department-wide spending freeze on discretionary appropriations, and capture savings from salaries related to injured personnel who are receiving short or long-term disability payments.

“Chief (Darren) O’Brien’s goal is to capture any expenditure in his overtime budget by cost reductions elsewhere in his budget. I believe his chances of doing so are high, but also I believe we have a sufficient backup plan and the support of our other Town departments, should assistance be needed,” Smith wrote in a memo he sent to the Town Council on April 8, as requested at its April 6 meeting.

The Fire Department’s shortfall is due to unanticipated expenses related to injuries and long-term illnesses, O’Brien reported at the Council meeting.

O’Brien said replacement costs associated with vacancies due to injuries, sick leave, vacation leave, and personal leave account for 88 percent of the Department’s overtime costs of $470,337 in FY15 to date.

The department is running over budget due to unanticipated costs, such as a vacant battalion chief position, which cost the Department $40,953 between September of 2014 and February of 2015.

Long-term injury and sick leave since July of 2014 has cost the department $88,138, and O’Brien said he expects that cost to rise with new injuries and long-term illnesses.

Additionally, the Department saw significant unanticipated expenses due to the need for additional coverage during the winter storms, which cost $16,732, as well as the Hall Road fire at Murray’s Auto Salvage, which cost the department $4,950.

A vacant firefighter position cost the department $12,389; an injury to a battalion chief cost the Department $7,999 thus far; and additional injury costs are at $5,121, but that amount is also expected to increase.

The total unanticipated funds spent to date are $191,795, with ongoing additional injuries expected to result in an increase in that cost.

O’Brien said had the Department not experienced the unanticipated injuries and long-term illnesses, it would have come in under the Council’s goal of ending February 2015 at 66.64 percent of overtime costs, with overtime costs at 63.2 percent.

Council Chairman John Farrell said unless the Town comes up with some sort of plan for emergency circumstances, he doesn’t know how, under the Town’s form of government (the Town must call a special election to ask for more money from the voters if a shortfall can’t be subsidized), it can fix unanticipated costs that departments like the Fire Department and Public Works Department incur due to significant storm events and other emergencies, which can’t be budgeted.

“The biggest thing I fear is because of fixed costs, we end up in a situation where we have to do layoffs,” he said. “And no one on the Town Council wants to see that happen. Under this form of government, our hands are really tied.”

Farrell said based on his conversations with O’Brien and Town Manager Kevin Smith, he thinks they “are really trying to think outside the box and manage in progressive ways going into the future.”

Freezing discretionary spending of the Fire Department is expected to yield an anticipated $50,000, while savings already existing from short- and long-term disability situations totals $63,000. The total of those items, $113,000, leaves the Town with a potential gap of $67,000 to $87,000.

Smith said they hope to fill the potential gap with savings achieved by staffing nine firefighters on a 24-hour basis.

This savings is difficult to quantify in advance, Smith wrote. “However, based on prior year overtime run rates for the last quarter of the fiscal year, when staffing was maintained at a level of (10 firefighters), we believe a savings of $41,000 to $61,000 is achievable,” he said.

Smith noted that even if the Fire Department were to achieve no savings from its plan to cover the shortfall with its own resources, the remaining shortfall in the department bottom line would be more than covered by projected surpluses in other departments.

Combined savings of the Fire Department, Police Department, Finance Department, Planning and Economic Development, Welfare and the Town Clerk/Tax Collector for FY2015 is expected to total $426,000.

“The savings that are being shown in our back-up plan will be unspent appropriations turned back to general fund surplus regardless of how the Fire Department fares in their quest for a balanced budget,” Smith wrote. “In fact, with the exception of the amount shown for the Police Department, these savings already exist as of the end of March.”

Moving forward, Farrell said the town manager and fire chief have to work more closely to actively manage the bottom line and the decisions around overtime and replacement costs, and he looks forward to them forming a greater partnership with the local collective bargaining group and command staff of the Fire Department.