Fire Department Staffing Questioned At Budget Hearing

Resident Maria Newman spoke out during the Town Council’s public hearing on the budget Monday and asked whether the proposed budget contained money for increased staffing of the fire department.

“Where are we at with the fire department situation? The number you are giving right now, is that with the overtime figure in there?” Newman asked.

“They’ve gone through every letter of what the process is supposed to be for overtime in the union contracts and they have come up with a plan on how they are going to run the funds that are allocated currently,” Farrell said. “It’s also my understanding that there are a number of discussions with the bargaining group. We are currently at impasse – we have no agreement with the fire department right now.”

Farrell said Smith had assured him that he is working with Fire Chief Darren O’Brien and that they are comfortable with where they are. Fire union local president Bo Butler is also involved in the talks.

“Is that with staffing at 10?” Newman asked.

“That’s between the Town Manager and the Fire Chief,” Farrell said.

He said that he had been contacted by several people via email and telephone at his home, and other councilors had been contacted as well. His response to everyone has been that the Fire Chief and the Town Manager have to work it out.

“I just thought it would affect the overall budget number,” Newman said.

Farrell said that was for Smith to answer. “It’s not for the council,” he said.

Smith explained that the voters authorized a specific amount of money in the budget for both fire staff and overtime.

“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.”

Smith said they had looked at the money allocated and came up with a number of areas where they could find savings in the current overtime budget.

“Part of that also includes under the current authorization that at certain times we would have to staff below 10 to meet that allocated number,” Smith said.

Newman said it was her understanding that the staffing level of 10 was the major issue.

Smith said that has been the issue that has been brought up and under the current allocation of money to meet that number, they will have to save money in concurrent duties and in call-backs. Part of the saving also includes at certain times reducing staff below 10 in order to meet the budget.

Smith said the number of calls to the fire department on a daily basis was reviewed and that was factored in as well.

He said fire staffing would probably drop below 10 from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.

“Not necessarily every day, but as it is required to meet the number,” Smith said.

Councilor Tom Dolan said it would be important to read between the lines and realize that “We’re not done yet, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to say much more.”

Budget Committee Chairman Chris Melcher asked if no resolution occurred, whether the matter would have to be delayed until next year.

Farrell said there were a couple of options.

“We can continue this public hearing to as far as Thursday (Jan. 23), and that would be our final position, but we would have to move the public hearing again,” he said. “We have a small window that we can move inside of.”

Resident Gene Jastrem said he wanted to know if there was a specific number of hours that needed to be covered and if there were not enough funds to cover those hours, what would happen.

“If we continually underfund that line, how do you expect the service to be there?” Jastrem said.

Farrell said a number of things are being discussed.

“We would very much like to have an agreement with the fire department moving forward that we can all live with so that everyone gets what they need,” he added.

Dolan said he would discourage the line of discussion and that one way or another, they would have an answer at the continued hearing Thursday, Jan. 23.

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