Several residents came forward in support of hiring additional firefighters during the public comment portion of Monday night’s Town Council meeting.
But by the end of the evening, it was still undecided whether or how to fund the money needed for additional firefighters or overtime.
Joe and Maria Newman said they were unable to attend the Dec. 23 Town Council meeting where the fire department budget had been discussed, but they had watched it on television.
“I know that this is an ongoing discussion, and as one resident and taxpayer, I really hope you can come to a conclusion to start hiring firefighters instead of the overtime. I feel very passionate about this,” Maria Newman said.
She said the warrant article presented to the voters two years ago was confusing and she thinks that was one of the reasons it failed.
She told of an oil tank leak at her home that got out of control and they called 911. She said the fire department came and took care of the leak, and acted with knowledge and professionalism.
“They saved my basement, they saved my home,” she said.
Her husband said the funding issue needed to be put before the voters.
“This is about public safety. The voters approved a rail trail for $2 million, they should vote on this,” he said.
Budget Committee member Dan Lekas countered that the rail trail funding was a onetime event, whereas the money for firefighters, if approved, is there forever.
“Three or four years ago we changed the way that we manage town government,” Council Chairman John Farrell said. “We used to go to Town Meeting and then we would vote on the floor. Today what we have is a default budget and whatever the council puts forth. If the council puts forth something along the lines of 14 firefighters on shift, we would probably have to add almost $2 million to the budget.”
And if they put a budget out that was $2 million more than the default budget, the voters would vote for the lower number, he claimed.
Farrell said the budget discussion was about overtime because paying overtime costs less than hiring people.
“The demand that was made is that we find it from someplace else, but we don’t have it anyplace else. We can rob Peter to pay Paul, but next year we’re going to be in the same situation,” Farrell said.
Farrell said they were looking to find the root cause to figure out how to solve the problem.
Resident Joe Sarno said he had had a heart attack and that thanks to the fire department’s being fully staffed, he was brought to the hospital in time to save his life.
“You have to look at what your life is really worth,” Sarno said. “If it drops below 10 (firefighters), there’s going to be problems.”
Farrell said there was a balancing act between a safety issue if the staffing dropped below 10 and response times.
“It’s never been the Council not hearing them – we work within a framework which we have to operate to be able to take care of all of the people,” Farrell said.
Farrell said the town has an outstanding fire department that is extremely well trained and dedicated, and that they know he has been their “number one supporter for the past 10 years.”
Farrell noted Town Manager Kevin Smith was asked to check into the root cause of the fire department budget problem.
Smith said he researched the issue and looked into whether there was a correlation between the spike in overtime that occurred between FY 2008 and FY 2009 with the change in the firefighters’ contract, when they went from working 48-hour shifts to 42-hour shifts.
He said that in 2008 the overtime was $405,991, “and then went up to $637,676 in 2009.”
Smith said he looked at the minutes from the various warrant articles that dropped the hours from 48 to 42 and noted they recognized that overtime costs would be increased.
He said they claimed overtime costs would be offset by “savings in personnel costs” but noted those savings didn’t materialize.
“The fire department contract in 2009 resulted in a 14.3 percent hourly wage increase as a result in a reduction in hours from 48 to 42,” Smith said. “The cost of the increase over five years from FY09 to FY13 has been $1,327,872. Because of the decrease in hours, overtime automatically increased, resulting in the following increases in these fiscal years: FY 09 $231,885, FY 10: $179,475, FY 11 $237,496, FY 12 $207,096 and FY 13 $333,955, for a total over five years of $1,189,707. Thus, the result of moving from 48 to 42 hours in FY09 has cost the town $2,517,579 over the last five years.”
Smith also said that in FY13, a firefighter on average worked eight hours of overtime per week or 400 hours of overtime per year, resulting in $16,665 per person of overtime for the year.
“In FY13, a battalion chief on average worked 13 hours of overtime per week, 700 hours of overtime per year, resulting in $37,204 per person of overtime for the year. Currently on the books, with 46 employees in the department, there is a total of 17,929 hours of unused sick time, and 10,538 hours of unused vacation time,” Smith said.
Councilor Joe Green asked Smith if he was saying that going from a 48 to a 42 hour workweek resulted in firefighters working fewer hours but getting the same amount of money.
“That’s correct,” Smith said.
Councilor Tom Freda asked Fire Chief Darren O’Brien if it was difficult to bring someone in to replace someone who was out, and O’Brien said there is a list they use to call people in.
Freda said that if the department staffed to 11, if there was an opening and they “dropped down to 10 but you don’t go any further, at least we could see if there any savings or not.”
Farrell asked Smith what his assessment was of the root cause of expenses going up, and Smith responded with 42-hour workweek schedule, sick time and vacation time, and the requirement for staffing at 10 to have a full complement.
Farrell said he had been contacted by several fire commissioners from around the state who were opposed to the 42-hour workweek because it is “quite costly.”
Farrell said one option is to have the town manager work with the fire chief with scheduling, work with him to prepare a warrant article for $240,000 for replacement cost money, or give the chief direction for a warrant article for additional firefighters.
“Those are the decisions we need to make,” Farrell said.
Budget committee member Ted Combes asked what the tax rate would be on $240,000 and Smith said that it would be $0.07.
Councilor Tom Dolan said that if the decision is for a warrant article, it would have to be in by the Council’s next meeting. Finance Director Sue Hickey noted the final vote by the Council on the warrants was Jan. 20.