After extensive discussion, the Derry Fire Department survived a challenge to its overtime line in the April 22 budget meeting.
Fire Chief George Klauber presented the working budget for Prevention and Emergency Services. While Town Councilors questioned several expenses, in particular the overtime, the budget eventually passed with a unanimous vote.
Klauber’s working budget is $10,375,879. an increase of $286,155 over last year’s approved $10,089,724. Klauber said the new budget offers no new programs or positions, and eliminates no programs or positions. The requested amount is what he needs to keep four stations open 24-7, with a scheduled maximum of 16 firefighters on duty each day.
Capital projects include repairing and replacing the roof at the Island Pond Road station, $65,000; replacing an asbestos floor at the Central Station, $26,000; updating the bathroom at the Hampstead Road station, $12,000; and replacing kitchen cabinets and countertops at the English Range Road station, $12,000.
The salary line is seeing an increase of $29,000 for step increases, which Klauber said were allowed even though collective bargaining has not been settled. There will be no cost-of-living raises, he said.
But the overtime (OT) line drew the most attention from the council.
The OT line in the working budget is up $70,957, from $607,068 to $678,025. Councilor Michael Fairbanks asked why and whether Klauber formally scheduled overtime.
Klauber responded that they plan each shift for 16 people. If someone is out, they allow it to go one short, to 15. After 15, they start bringing in off-duty personnel for overtime. “We do not go below 15,” Klauber said.
“This is the number we need to maintain the staffing without hiring additional help,” Klauber said.
The OT line is utilized for firefighters being out with an illness or disability, and also to fill the gap when someone goes for training, Klauber said.
He pointed to a drop in OT since 2006, from $1,161,000 to last year’s “actual” of $699,600 spent.
“You overspent last year,” Fairbanks said. “Where did the money come from?”
Klauber said when he goes over the allotted amount for OT, he finds the money in a line that’s been underspent. For example, he said, last year the department got a “break” in Workers Compensation.
Off-duty personnel are also called in when there’s a major fire, he said, and those he cannot predict. “My colleague Mike Fowler, in Public Works, can’t predict the amount of snow he’s going to get, and I can’t predict the number of fires,” he said.
Councilor Tom Cardon made a motion to reduce the overtime line to the 2014 level of $607,068, and Chairman Mark Osborne opened the floor for discussion.
Councilor Joshua Bourdon asked Klauber if reducing the OT would mean closing a station. Klauber said he didn’t want to close a station, but could in the worst-case scenario reduce a company.
Would Klauber be willing to “trade” some of the Capital Project items for the OT? “Would you be willing to postpone the roof, the flooring and the cabinets?” Bourdon asked.
Klauber said he couldn’t, because the Capital Project money was coming from the fund balance and was classified as “offsetting revenue.” He can’t touch those funds for something else, he explained.
Klauber said cuts in overtime have affected other services, such as fire prevention education in the Derry public schools. “We no longer go into the schools on a regular basis,” he said. He predicted that other services, such as free CPR training, which staff members offer in their free time, would be affected, along with their own continuing education.
The Council voted on Cardon’s motion to reduce overtime, with Cardon, David Fischer, Fairbanks, Bourdon, Albert Dimmock and Phyllis Katsakiores voting against it and Osborne voting for it.
The Council made short work of the rest of Klauber’s budget, voting 7-0 to approve the $10,375,879. They also voted to approve the Dispatch budget, which comes under his supervision, at $729,600.