The Falmouth Finance Committee has prepared a list of questions for the fire chief and town administration for the February 25 meeting at which they will discuss the fire department’s budget and proposed $1.3 million override to hire eight additional firefighters.
The committee prepared the list at its Tuesday, February 4, meeting. Members did not debate the merits of an override or whether the West Falmouth fire station should remain open or be closed. However, committee member Nicholas S. Lowell asked if the proposed number of firefighters to be hired through the override could be changed.
“When Peter [J. Hargraves] and I met with Chief Small, he said that he would like to ideally bring officers in in groups of four, because with four guys, that gives him full coverage over a week-long schedule,” Mr. Lowell said.
The Fiscal Year 2021 budget includes two new firefighters, while the override would allow for eight more.
“That is not a multiple of four,” Mr. Lowell said. “I would like some clarification as to whether we should have two in the budget and six in the override or 10 in the override, so we would have a net of either eight or 12 positions, and what the administration’s thoughts are about either reducing by two or adding by two, and what the impact is on operations.”
Town Manager Julian M. Suso said adding four firefighters at once would be ideal, but the town is limited by Proposition 2½. The town has made an effort to increase the staffing level at the fire rescue department. Including the two firefighters proposed in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, the town has added nine firefighters in the past five years.
“Having one additional firefighter or two additional firefighters gives you support for workers comp injuries, which happen, sadly, with significant frequency,” Mr. Suso said. “That is a very tough profession in that regard. It also covers for vacation and it covers for sick leave. Bringing in an odd number of individuals to staff still has a huge utility and huge benefit for properly manning a public safety response.”
Mr. Hargraves said he would like to know what the ideal number of firefighters is for deployment in Falmouth.
“Is this incremental number of firefighters the right number?” he asked. “He asked for eight in the budget. Should we ask for even more, or somewhat less, considering there were three other options proposed for meeting the need if one fire station closes.”
Mr. Hargraves said he would like additional information on the three options, which are staffing the West Falmouth fire station with two voluntary 24-hour overtime shifts every day; contracting with a private ambulance service to serve the town; and applying for funding through the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant program.
He also said he would like to know the status of the McGrath Consulting Group report, a study to identify potential locations for a new fire station.
Mr. Suso said the McGrath Consulting Group will present a summary PowerPoint presentation to the Falmouth Board of Selectmen at its meeting on Monday, February 10. Study documents will be released shortly after that presentation.
Committee member Judith P. Magnani asked how much the override covers.
“If this override goes through, is it looking forward to how he would staff a new fire station or new fire stations?” Ms. Magnani asked. “Is that included in this, or will we continue to add and add?”
Committee member Mary Harris asked if the fire chief could provide the finance committee with a strategic plan for the department.
Committee members also asked several questions related to the override itself, rather than the operation of the department. The committee asked what happens to the cash if the department is unable to hire eight additional firefighters during FY21.
Per the terms of the override, Director of Finance Jennifer Mullen said, the $1.3 million can only be used to hire eight firefighters. If the town is unable to hire those eight firefighters during the upcoming fiscal year, the money would likely revert to free cash. She said it could not be used for a different use, such as overtime staffing at the West Falmouth fire station.
Mr. Lowell asked if the town would consider a tiered override ballot question. A series of questions could ask voters if they support an override to hire six positions, eight positions or 10 positions at the fire department.
“I think there is a percentage of the town that will support any number of firefighters, and a percentage that won’t support any,” he said. “I figure on any ballot question, a third of people will vote for it and a third of people will never vote for it, so you could perhaps increase the chances of its passing by having a stepped or tiered question.”
He said some residents have an appetite for hiring more than eight firefighters with an override.
“If you went to the high school meeting, people were floating 16,” he said. “I can’t imagine we would hire 16 additional firefighters, but I don’t know, maybe, but there is a group of people who would like to hire a lot more than eight.”
Ms. Mullen said she has looked at a tiered ballot question, which has not been done in Falmouth.
“It is so complicated, people don’t understand it when they get in the ballot box,” she said.
Committee member Susan P. Smith asked if a tiered question could be used to ask voters if they would like to hire four firefighters in FY 2021 and four in FY 2022. Mr. Lowell said he is “99 percent” certain it cannot be done this way, as the town cannot commit to future fiscal years in an override.