Next year’s budget no problem for FinCom, this one is

  • Athol Finance Committee Chair Ken Duffy making a point during budget deliberations Tuesday night. Greg Vine

  • Athol Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera, left, and Town Manager Shaun Suhoski  speaking before Athol’s Finance Committee Tuesday night.  Greg Vine

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 4/24/2019 10:00:19 PM

ATHOL — The proposed fiscal year 2020 budget cobbled together by Town Manager Shaun Suhoski and the town’s department heads was reviewed by the Finance Committee Tuesday night. While committee members seemed generally satisfied with the spending package of just over $20 million, the panel did not take a vote on whether to recommend it for passage at the upcoming annual town meeting. Before adjourning, the FinCom decided to meet again before making its recommendations.

Finishing out the current fiscal year, however, appeared to be the most vexing task before the committee. Both Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera and Police Chief Craig Lundgren are seeking a total of about $105,000 in funding to cover personnel costs through June 31. Committee Chair Ken Duffy, however, pointed out there is currently only about $75,000 in the town’s reserve account to cover such requests.

Lundgren told the FinCom that one item that hasn’t been budgeted for in recent years is in-service training.

“Every officer is required to have 40 hours of training a year,” he explained. “That hasn’t occurred in the last couple of years. So, this year every officer has completed his 40 hours of training. That’s a huge overtime cost when you send an officer for a week-long training, and multiply that by 13 or 14 officers. That’s a lot of money.”

Lundgren said the yearly training is required by the state. He noted the officers could lose their certification and have their arrest powers taken away if they don’t complete it. “One of the first things I did when I came on board was review training records and said everyone’s going back to the Police Academy for 40 hours. That’s a huge liability issue,” he said.

As for the Fire Department, Duffy said Guarnera is anticipating a $48,000 shortfall for FY19.

“Circumstances contributing the high overtime costs,” said Duffy, “are two firefighter vacancies, two firefighters are out on injury status, not IOD (injured on duty), one firefighter is attending the academy, along with a fire IOD, and a retirement disability.”

“At this point we’re budgeted for 16 firefighters,” Guarnera explained. “Out of those 16, we have two open slots, we have two injuries, and one at the academy. So, out of those 16, we’re down to eight. So, eight are working. Four are overtime continually, because we’re covering not only overtime but also vacation days and personal days and sick days. We have people being forced into overtime because we can’t cover shifts.”

“We’ve been advertising for the two vacant positions,” he said. “Every time I put in the requisition for two, we have to put a (Civil Service) list out. Once it’s been out for so many days, I put in for provisional (firefighters). The way Civil Service works, one person may have changed their status to paramedic, so we have to go through the list all over again. That’s been going on since October. We just started a new Civil Service list to see if anybody else signs. I told Civil Service if that keeps happening, we just can’t keep on doing this. It’s ridiculous. At that point we might be able to hire a provisional. They’re not covered under Civil Service.”

Duffy asked if there has been thought given to removing the Fire Department from Civil Service.

“Well,” said Town Manager Shaun Suhoski, “we proposed a warrant article two years ago. It got taken off the warrant. The fire chief has had, I think, some amicable discussion with the staff. But, if it was up to me and I was the only voter at town meeting, I’d vote us out of Civil Service tomorrow. I don’t mind telling you that.”

Suhoski said while fire department staff may be willing to drop Civil Service, they first want to ensure the town has a new workable system in place for making hires, imposing discipline, and facilitating advancement.

“We’ve got to get over that old school thinking,” said Suhoski. “It’s time to go.”

The committee said it would determine how to handle the requests for reserve fund expenditures in the near future.

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