Falmouth voters on Tuesday, May 19, will consider a $971,507 override of Proposition 2½ to fund the hiring of eight additional firefighters in the Falmouth Fire Rescue Department.
“We need eight more firefighters,” Assistant Town Manager Peter Johnson-Staub said Monday, May 11, at the selectmen’s meeting. “Those eight firefighters would provide two additional firefighters every 24-hour shift, seven days a week. That is in part needed because calls have nearly doubled over the past 20 years, and additionally, we are implementing, effective July 1, the new requirement that every engine and ladder deployed from the fire department must have at least two firefighters.”
Mr. Johnson-Staub said the town has been working toward the increased staffing level for “quite some time.”
“We’ve added seven additional positions over the past five years without an override, but still, we need these eight additional positions to bring the staffing level from 14 at the start of shift to 16 in order to make that the most-effective deployment we can from the existing five stations,” he said.
Selectman Douglas C. Brown said the request reflects a real need at the Falmouth Fire Rescue Department.
“We’ve been constantly adding to the fire department, but we can’t keep up,” Mr. Brown said. “We are far behind, and we’re under-served right now, so it is a dangerous situation for the guys that are working.”
Director of Finance Jennifer Mullen said the increased staffing level could not fit into the town’s operational budget without cuts in service elsewhere.
The effective rate of the 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.
Given the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Selectman Susan L. Moran said, several citizens have asked her if the town can afford a $971,507 override at this time.
“Since this is an override, really the question is do you want to increase your taxes to pay for eight new firefighters?” Ms. Mullen asked.
The override would serve as a permanent funding source for the additional firefighters, meaning the positions would not be competing for monetary resources with other town services within the operational budget.
“My biggest concern is binding the town to a future budget increase,” Ms. Mullen said. “Then you would be fighting firefighters against other services.”
Mr. Johnson-Staub also noted that the ballot question does not use the word “override.” The question, Question 1 on the ballot, asks “Shall the Town of Falmouth be allowed to assess an additional $971,507 in real estate and personal property taxes for the purpose of funding the salaries and benefits of eight (8) firefighters for the Fiscal Year beginning July 1, 2020?”
“One of the questions we received is why doesn’t it say on the ballot that this is an override, and the reason is because the state has determined exactly what the wording of override questions must be on the election ballot,” he said, and the ballot question complies with the language prescribed by the state law.
An affirmative vote is just the first step. In order for the override to move forward, it also requires an appropriation by Town Meeting. The override is Article 14 on the upcoming Falmouth Town Meeting warrant.
Town Meeting will be held on the third Monday after the expiration of the gubernatorial-declared state of emergency.
“It is not at all unprecedented for the town election to precede the Town Meeting vote,” Mr. Johnson-Staub said. “There are towns that routinely have their elections prior to Town Meeting.”
It is, however, new for Falmouth. Ms. English Braga said the town typically discusses potential overrides at Town Meeting first. Doing so enables the town to get information out about the override to voters.
“Anything we vote at Town Meeting, whether it has to do with an override or not, permeates throughout the community and makes it into the community,” she said.