By Julie Huss
---- — LONDONDERRY — The town continues to struggle with fire department staffing levels and ways to pay.
Town Manager Kevin Smith said it’s an ongoing mission to keep staff levels at adequate levels, while trying to keep overtime costs in check.
Last year, the fire department announced it had spent about $200,000 over the budgeted overtime amount.
This year, the struggle continues.
“Right now, the firefighters’ overtime budget is running at 91 percent,” Smith said.
That still leaves about six months remaining in the current fiscal year, the town manager said.
A number of firefighters are out due to long-term sick leave and it was necessary to fill those vacancies using overtime hours, Smith said.
“We’re trying to mitigate the problem,” Smith said.
Smith said he met with fire Chief Darren O’Brien and came up with a plan to keep staffing at its current 10 firefighters per station during the busiest 12 hours of the day, but dropping down to nine during the less busy hours.
“We will watch this the next few months,” Smith said.
It’s also been a tough winter on other departments that often had funding left over at the end of a fiscal year, he said.
The town’s Public Works department is at 75 percent of its winter budget so far.
“It’s because of how difficult the winter has been,” Smith said.
He said the town works hard to find the best ways possible to make the budget work and keep the community safe.
“We’re forced to make tough decisions,” Smith said. “But there is some light at the end of the tunnel.”
That light may come in the form of $105,000 being added to the proposed town budget for next year to help handle fire department overtime costs.
Smith also hopes to restore staffing levels.
The fire budget and staffing numbers have been in discussion for several months. Residents and firefighters spoke out at public meetings, showing support for the department.
Firefighter Bruce Hallowell told town councilors last month he worried about the fire department’s budget for fiscal year 2015 and said right now it’s almost bare bones when it comes to staffing levels.
“I believe the fire department is one organization that needs a little extra this year,” he said.
Right now, the department staffs each of the town’s three stations with 10 members, but if a shift is hit with someone taking vacation or sick time, those numbers can drop.
Calling others in to cover those vacant spaces adds to the overtime costs.
During town budget talks, O’Brien said having 14 firefighters on staff would be ideal.
“More firefighters will aid in making the overtime and replacement costs less, but it won’t go away,” O’Brien said.
He said it would take about $204,000 to fund overtime costs needed to fill any shift vacancies that come up due to staff being out for sickness, injury or vacation.
Town councilors did agree prior to the deliberative session to add $105,000 to the operating budget to help support the fire department.
The town and fire union were at an impasse in negotiations prior to the deliberative session, so no warrant article on a proposed new contract was included.