The Falmouth Finance Committee on Tuesday, March 3, voted 12-1 to support a $971,507 override of Proposition 2½ to fund the hiring of eight additional firefighters. Committee member Joseph Lemay cast the sole vote opposed. This figure, which amounts to $121,438 per firefighter, includes salary and benefits. The figure assumes the firefighter is hired at a step two pay grade.
The cost of the proposed override was reduced by nearly $400,000 from the initial request of $1,366,735, or approximately $170,000 per firefighter. Committee chairman Keith Schwegel said he was encouraged to see that the number decreased.
“I think it makes it much more reasonable,” Mr. Schwegel said. “As much as I hate paying taxes, I understand that it is necessary and was convinced the eight firefighters are needed. Other numbers just don’t work.”
The reduction is due to the unfunded retirement liability, which initially was budgeted at $66,000 per firefighter.
“We had a very large—and it was questioned—retirement assessment,” Director of Finance Jennifer Mullen said, noting that figure was reduced to $16,710 per firefighter.
Committee member Susan P. Smith said this retirement assessment will cost $22,000 to $25,000 per year. This increased cost is built into the override, which allocates $9,910 per firefighter for training at the fire academy. This is a one-time cost.
“That money will go into the retirement assessment, so it will be the proper amount after year one,” Ms. Smith said.
The reduced override reduces the cost to taxpayers. Using the median assessed home value of $378,000, Ms. Mullen said, the override would cost the average homeowner $30.24 annually.
“It is eight cents per thousand of valuation,” she said. “We feel good about this number. It is a good number for eight firefighters. It is manageable.”
Joseph A. Netto of Clark Street, East Falmouth, advised the committee to be cautious, saying the town needs to consider how outside factors could impact the economy prior to recommending an override.
“I think we have to put in perspective what is going on in the world today, and that is the economic uncertainty related to the coronavirus,” Mr. Netto said.
He said the town does not want to put itself in a position where Town Meeting has to adjust the operating budget. Citing the 2008 recession, he said local receipts failed to meet projected revenues in Fiscal Year 2009. These receipts fell approximately $2.8 million short of the budgeted amount at the time. State aid was also reduced, prompting Town Meeting to reduce the FY 2009 operating budget by $168,000 at the April 2009 Town Meeting.
“The severity of this economic downturn, because it is health related, will definitely obviously affect tourism, not only in the Town of Falmouth and that revenue portion of it, but in the state of Massachusetts,” Mr. Netto said.
He said while the proposed figure looked palatable, it raised the question of “what if?” He asked if the town would consider an override to hire four firefighters rather than eight.
Ms. Smith said while Mr. Netto’s point is well taken, an override is a safe funding source for hiring additional firefighters.
“First, I would like to say [that] going back to Town Meeting to change the budget line items because we didn’t have enough money is exactly the reason we’re not trying to fit these into the budget—because we know we can’t do that without putting strain on the other departments that also need more help,” she said.
She added that if the coronavirus leads to a downturn in tourism, it will also lead to an uptick in medical calls to the fire department.
Committee member Mary Harris said the override addresses a real need.
“We don’t really know [what] the impact of [the coronavirus] will be now,” Ms. Harris said. “What we do know is the fire department is short eight people. I can show Mr. Netto some figures later on why eight is the right number, and not less. We actually need that, and even with that, we’re not completely adequately staffed, but we can’t afford to do more than that.”
Committee vice chairman Nicholas S. Lowell said some community members, particularly those on fixed incomes, might not be able to afford a $30.24 increase on their tax bill. He remains concerned that an override might not pass.
“It is really a question of do we want to burden the taxpayer with it and is the service justified?” Mr. Lowell asked. “I think the fire department and the administration have made a pretty good case that adding eight firefighters is justified, but it really comes down to whether Town Meeting and the voters agree.”
The override will go before Falmouth Town Meeting on April 13.