By Julie Huss
---- — LONDONDERRY — Town councilors still hope to find a solution to keep local fire stations staffed and the community safe.
After residents showed support earlier this month and asked the Town Council to find a way to put more personnel in the town's fire stations, councilors decided to add money to next year's proposed budget to help offset some of the rising overtime costs.
That measure was one of several ideas considered to bring the fire department and its overtime spending under control.
During the town budget hearing Jan. 20, fire department talk took center stage as town councilors presented the proposed budget for next year. That included a $28,054,908 operating budget and several warrant articles.
But it was the fire department issue that prompted councilors to continue the hearing to later in the week.
That measure came after Town Manager Kevin Smith said the town and fire union had reached an impasse on a new contract and ways to spend the allocated department funds.
Smith did say both sides were working hard to come to an agreement, but the impasse remained.
Resident Maria Newman said she wants more staff in the town's fire stations and asked the council to make that happen.
“We’re hoping we can come to some sort of a way to hire firefighters,” Newman said. “It’s so important that we staff those shifts properly.”
The continued hearing Jan. 23 gave councilors the opportunity to present several options for either warrant articles or money to be added to the budget to support the fire department.
Some would cost more than others.
A first option would be a warrant article on the March ballot, asking voters to support a $1.4 million spending plan to hire an additional 16 firefighters to increase the staff at each station.
"That would be in the perfect world," Town Council Chairman John Farrell said.
Another option, he said, was to request $240,000 to make up for some overtime costs. A third idea was to hire a deputy fire chief to help keep hours in check.
The fourth and final option would add an additional $105,000 into the regular fire budget line to help relieve overtime costs.
Overtime has been an ongoing issue as councilors grapple with next year’s budget. Those numbers spiked several years ago when a firefighters’ contract lowered the number of shift hours worked per week from 48 to 42.
The town has gone through many changes in past years, Farrell said, with new management in both the fire department and Town Hall.
There was oversight in policy, he said, and it's time for the town to look at the way it manages the overtime hours.
"We'll take this and figure out what we need to do, and we'll come back next year," Farrell said. "We'll do our homework and figure it out."