Committee reviews hiring costs for Athol Fire Department personnel

Athol Town Manager Shaun Suhoski speaks before the Fire Department Staffing Advisory Committee, explaining the cost of hiring eight additional firefighters at Wednesday’s meeting.

Athol Town Manager Shaun Suhoski speaks before the Fire Department Staffing Advisory Committee, explaining the cost of hiring eight additional firefighters at Wednesday’s meeting. PHOTO BY GREG VINE

(From left) Athol Accountant Amy Craven, Principal Assessor Lisa Aldrich, Treasure/Collector Patrick McIntyre and Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera at Wednesday's meeting of the Fire Department Staffing Advisory Committee.

(From left) Athol Accountant Amy Craven, Principal Assessor Lisa Aldrich, Treasure/Collector Patrick McIntyre and Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera at Wednesday's meeting of the Fire Department Staffing Advisory Committee. PHOTO BY GREG VINE

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 01-11-2024 5:00 PM

ATHOL – Members of the Fire Department Staffing Advisory Committee were asked to be ready next week with recommendations on how to solve the staffing shortage at the Fire Department.

There seemed to be little disagreement that the department needs additional staff—but there was also general sentiment that townspeople could not again be asked to fund the hiring of eight new firefighter/EMTs. A Proposition 2 ½ override asking taxpayers to fund $895,000 for this purpose was defeated by a two-to-one margin in a Tow Election vote last August.

Town Manager Shaun Suhoski presented the committee with the projected cost of hiring three new firefighter/EMTs and five firefighter/paramedics. EMTs are trained to provide Advanced Life Support services, while paramedics perform Basic Medical Support.

Suhoski said the cost of hiring three firefighter/EMTs would amount to $251,000, while five firefighter/paramedics would cost the town $362,000. Health and dental insurance, retirement assessments, and ‘injured on duty’ insurance would add another $149,000, bringing the total cost to just over $95,000 per hire.

There would also be one-time costs of new turnout gear and academy training for each new hire, totaling $185,000.

How to pay for new hires

The discussion turned to what committee members see as a need to hire additional staff through the town’s general budget.

Suhoski said he felt comfortable that he could find the money to make one new hire, while Rebecca Bialecki—one of the Selectboard’s representatives on the advisory committee—insisted he should do his best to find the funds for two. How many hires the town could cover could depend on how much state aid will be received in the next fiscal year. Officials believe that will be level-funded at FY24 figures, based on available information.

“That means taking a hard look at our entire budget,” said Bialecki, “and thinking about this as being a critical problem we have to address as a priority.”

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Kevin Kaczmarczyk, a representative of the firefighters’ union, asked what would happen if the town could pay to hire two additional firefighters and if the other six would be sought through other means.

“If we make a real good effort and create two out of our budget,” Bialecki responded, “that puts us that much more ahead of the game for what we have to ask for.”

Committee Chair Ken Duffy said the committee would need to settle on an override figure by the middle of February in order to make a recommendation for the Selectboard to consider at its Feb. 20 meeting. 20. The board must make a decision at that time if it wants to place an override question on the ballot for the April 1 Town Election.

Duffy asked if anyone was opposed to the idea of again asking voters to fund eight new positions.

“I feel very strongly,” said Bialecki, “that we cannot offer the voters eight positions as an override. We know internally that eight is what we would like, ideally. But I think we cannot present that to the voters a second time.”

A quick poll of members indicated unanimous agreement with that Bialecki.

“Look, we cannot bring back the same package we had the first time,” said Duffy. “The voters, and I know we only had 750 people vote, but it was pretty clear-cut that they were not comfortable with that.”

Bialecki said the defeat of the override in August hammered department morale.

“We lost some folks to other departments, not even for a big pay increase, because if they feel like the town doesn’t support them, they eventually ask themselves, ‘Why would we stay?’” Bialecki said.

Duffy then offered up the possibility of hiring one position through the town budget and three via an override, which would amount to approximately $285,000.

“Basically, it comes to the taxpayers and the voters – do you want to try to save this ambulance service as it operates now for an added $285,00?” Duffy said. “Frankly, if we can’t get that passed at $285,000 – to add one person per shift to boost that service – then we’ve got real problems. And, quite honestly, that service would be in jeopardy.”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com