By Julie Huss
---- — LONDONDERRY — Fire department officials are still concerned about their staffing numbers and how much money should be spent on overtime costs.
Those concerns came before Town Council during a budget hearing Dec. 23 as workshops continue to discuss next year’s financial numbers.
The subject of staff numbers and overtime costs is nothing new and something councilors have faced for years at budget time.
Firefighter Bruce Hallowell said 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 stations with 10 members, but if a shift is hit with someone taking vacation or sick time, the numbers often drop to as low as seven on duty.
Calling others in to cover those vacant spaces adds to the overtime costs.
That can also be a safety issue, Hallowell said, as the department may receive 10 emergency calls per day. Having more staff would add to the safety factor for the town’s residents.
Fire Chief Darren 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 that would be needed to fill any shift vacancies that come
Battalion Chief Jim Roger said dropping the staff any lower than 10 per station is not safe for protecting Londonderry’s 42 square miles.
“That would bring into a very dangerous situation,” he said.
He said the staff problem has been ongoing.
“We’ve been coming to you year after year on the staffing issues,” Roger told councilors. “We need your help.”
But Councilor Tom Freda said fire department overtime costs have been an issue for many years and it’s not always easy to find the money to make the problem go away.
In March, O’Brien told councilors that about 70 percent of the fire department’s budget had already been used, with more than 90 percent in overtime costs.
Voters in town approved a measure in the firefighters’ contract in 2008 to bring the work week down to 42 hours per week from 48. That could be part of the continuing overtime issue, Councilor Tom Dolan said.
Dolan said he was hired to be a policymaker and it’s up to voters to decide how to help fund the fire department when budget season rolls around every year.
He also said it might be best to address staffing and hours served through the collective bargaining process, not through operating budget talks.
Budget Committee member Chris Melcher said he hopes to somehow find a solution.
“I’d like to figure out a way to make this work, but I’m not sure what that is,” he said.
Council Chairman John Farrell said he didn’t know where the town would find the fire department’s request for the $204,000 it says it needs to fund overtime costs for next year.
“I don’t have it,” Farrell said. “Tell me where I’m going to get it.”
Budget discussions continue Jan. 20 in Moose Hill Council Chambers at the town offices.