Falmouth Town Meeting on Monday, June 22, appropriated $971,507 to hire eight additional firefighters for the Falmouth Fire Rescue Department.
The funds were made available by voters, who at the May 19 town election approved an override of Proposition 2½.
Town Meeting member Joseph A. Netto, Precinct Nine, asked the body not to fund the override at this time.
“What I’m going to do is ask you tonight not to vote for this appropriation in this budget,” Mr. Netto said. “That does not cancel the override. The voters of the Town of Falmouth voted that they want to spend this money, fine. We can release the money, but why do I not want you to release the money tonight? It’s very simple, and I will use the exact words of our finance person: It is difficult to project revenue at this time.”
Town Counsel Frank K. Duffy confirmed that assertion.
“The town, at the election, voted this override, and I’m not aware of any expiration of the override,” Mr. Duffy said.
Noting the challenging times, Mr. Netto said the business community is seeking release and many residents have not worked for three months. As the town has already reduced the operational budget for Fiscal Year 2021, he said the town should put this off as well.
“Let’s wait until we have a better financial picture. If you haven’t worked for three months, are you going to go out and buy a new car when the new model year comes out? A lot of neighbors have lost substantial amounts of income,” he said.
John E. Noonan III, Precinct Seven, asked for a breakdown of the override cost. Director of Finance Jennifer Mullen provided this detail, noting the override costs $121,438 per firefighter.
That figure includes a yearly salary of $63,470, a retirement assessment of $16,710, $3,121 in holiday pay, a $920 Medicare contribution, $20,000 for health insurance, $678 for line-of-duty injury insurance, $1,670 in uniform expenses, $3,350 for protective gear, $9,910 for the fire academy, $590 in staff development costs and $9 for life insurance.
Mr. Noonan said some of these fees, including the fire academy fee, are one-time costs.
“I’m in favor of the eight firefighters. I’m not talking against that. What my concern is, [is] the way this is presented to us. We are doing an override with about $100,000 extra for the next 20 years, or forever actually. We’re doing an extra $100,000 for that, and that should have come out of free cash or somewhere else, so we’re not overriding forever on that item because that is a one-time fee.”
Ms. Mullen acknowledged that point.
“You’re right. There are some one-time costs in there, but with the retirement assessment there are some estimates in here,” she said.
After the first year, she said, costs such as the fire academy fee will be rolled into the retirement assessment.
Adrian C.J. Dufresne, Precinct Two, said Town Meeting should not fund the override at this time.
“We don’t really need eight firefighters in the new fiscal year. Right now the Town of Falmouth is facing some very serious, dramatic costs, and all of us have to pay it. Again, and I’m going to repeat, it is not that I’m against adding eight firefighters when we put the new station up in Hatchville. We’re going to need additional people,” he said.
He asked the body to seriously consider Mr. Netto’s recommendation not to fund the override.
“We’ve got some serious problems coming up, and we don’t need a million-dollar increase unless the selectmen have a long-range plan on what they want to do with the additional million dollars,” Mr. Dufresne said. “I ask you to just hold off and let this just come back at next fall’s Town Meeting and see exactly where we are financially in the Town of Falmouth.”
In addition, he said, the town has never used an override to pay for employee salaries. Judith Fenwick, Precinct One, said Town Meeting funded operational overrides in 1989 and 1998. The 1998 override, which appropriated $1 million to the Falmouth public schools, included $250,000 in salaries.
Mary Ellen Alwardt, Precinct Four, asked the town to consider an alternative funding source for hiring eight additional firefighters.
“This pandemic has affected all of us, personally, economically, physically and emotionally, some more than others, and it has placed an incredible burden on our community,” she said. “Some families have been hit with reduced or unemployment, and some may not have jobs to go back to because their employers are not able to open. There are residents that are not able to make their rent, utilities, mortgage payments and food bills. It is a time we all have to work together to accomplish goals that are important to all of us.”
Rather than an override, she said, the town could consider using its health insurance budget.
“Our town’s health insurance budget has been overfunded for years. It has been a pet peeve of mine, and I cannot understand why the town would continue to increase this budget, year after year, when the unspent balance at year end is over a million dollars,” Ms. Alwardt said.
The leftover balance is often used to cover overspent department budgets at the end of the fiscal year. That was true this year, as the finance committee and select board transferred $666,500 from the health insurance budget to cover budget shortfalls at a joint meeting on June 15.
Ms. Alwardt also said the town could use local receipts to hire additional firefighters. Going back to 2015, she said, the town consistently underestimates its local receipts. In 2015, the town generated $4.7 million more than projected. The town exceeded projections by $5.2 million in 2016, $6.5 million in 2017, $7 million in 2018 and $6.5 million in 2019.
“Those are substantial figures, so instead of voting a permanent tax override for the very needed purpose of hiring eight additional firefighters, and we do need them, we need coverage, we need safety in our town, I urge this body to vote no on Article 14 with the hope the town will increase its local estimated receipts by at least $1 million to appropriate toward the firefighters’ salaries,” she said.
Martha M. Asendorf, Precinct Six, said this override did not follow the typical pattern. In most cases, Town Meeting appropriates funding for an override before the ballot question being voted on at the town election.
“It didn’t happen this year, clearly. In May, when the voters voted, we had been sheltering for two months. There were not the opportunities to do the big meetings, to get the information out there, but I believe we are in an educated community, and these people looked at the question that was going to be on the ballot and made an educated choice,” she said.
She noted these firefighters will not join the department right away. The hiring and training process can take approximately one year before a firefighter is ready to join the force.
“With that in mind, I am not going to go back to the voters and say, ‘Oh, you voted for this, but you know what? We know better, and we’re going to just do it this other way, and maybe we’ll get firefighters not next year, when they’re done training and they’ve been hired, but we’re going to wait and it will be about two years before we get these eight firefighters,’” Ms. Asendorf said.
Robert V. Antonucci, Precinct Six, said Town Meeting should support the will of the voters.
“The voters voted for us to support this tonight. How many times do we go to Town Meeting and people say, ‘What do people in your precinct think about how you should vote?’ My precinct is telling me to vote for it. So vote for this article. The voters have spoken; we’re going to protect our town. It’s not fire versus police, or us versus affirmative action. Our vote is to benefit the quality of life in this town.”
Town Meeting approved the override on a voice vote.
The effective rate of the $971,507 override is eight cents per $1,000 of assessed value. Using the median assessed home value of $378,000, the override would cost the average homeowner $30.24 annually.
In addition to the override, Town Meeting approved the Falmouth Fire Rescue Department’s FY 2021 operating budget of $7,732,968. This budget figure includes two additional firefighters.