Residents, town officials debate override for new firefighters

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 07-21-2023 4:05 PM

ATHOL — With the Special Election only days away, Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera took questions on a $895,000 override of Proposition 2 ½ to fund the hire of new firefighters—including whether there was another way.

The vote will take place on Monday, July 31, following passage at the recent Annual Town Meeting. If passed, eight firefighters can be hired, bringing the station coverage from four to six. Several informational sessions have been held in recent weeks, including the one on Tuesday, July 18, at Town Hall, which was attended by around 40 people.

Marc Morgan, a member of the Board of Planning and Community Development, wanted to know if the town’s ambulance service is providing basic life support (BLS) or advanced life support (ALS) services when it responds to mutual aid requests. The department runs two ambulances. Guarnera said both services are offered.

“We only have one ambulance that’s working at a time,” said the chief. “The other (two-person) crew is set to be on the (fire) apparatus. But if there’s another call we send that second one. We have the ability, or we should, to have two medics on a shift.”

Resident Barbara Savoy asked if the $895,000 could be obtained by making cuts in the town budget.

“It would be an awful lot,” said Town Manager Shaun Suhoski. “I hate words like ‘devastating,’ but take the Town Hall offices – my office, the Board of Selectmen office, accountant, treasurer, clerk – all of those budgets are less than $200,000. So, basically you could shut everything down and fund that, but it’s really not feasible.”

Morgan then asked about the possibility of utilizing more part-time or call firefighters. Guarnera said that years ago, the town had a call firefighter force of approximately 40 people. Now, it’s down to eight, with four active members.

“Call forces across the country, it’s a dying thing,” he said. “People just don’t do it anymore.”

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Breaking down the proposed expenditure, Guarnera said $681,000 would go to salary and other expenses included in the collective bargaining agreement with the firefighter’s union, and $214,000 for insurance and retirement costs. A separate $208,000 expenditure was approved at the Annual Town Meeting to cover one-time costs associated with equipment and training for the new firefighters. If the override fails, that money won’t be spent.

The chief told those in attendance that the town’s ambulance service generates about $1 million in revenue each year, leading Board of Health member Raenette Kramer to ask why that couldn’t be used for the new hires.

“Per Town Meeting vote, 15 percent of that comes off the top and that goes into a fund to replenish the ambulance and ancillary supplies for the ambulance,” Suhoski responded. “The balance of that – this year we projected about $700,000 – goes into the town budget. The total appropriated is just over $20 million, so it goes into the entire town budget – it’s part of the revenue stream that the Town Meeting will allocate. The fire department budget is about $2.4 million, so you could say the $700,000 goes to that.”

An ongoing concern

Suhoski, who has been in Athol for nine years, said Fire Department staffing has been raised in the past, but only one has been hired. He said that he’s reluctant to add a tax bill through an override, but feels that the time has come to act.

“When I look back historically—into the 80s—the department had 24 full-time individuals in the department, doing less than half the calls they do today – about a 250 percent increase in calls for service,” he said. “The majority of calls now are medical calls; those calls have increased 250 percent over 40 years and the staffing has gone down by about 20 percent. So that’s not sustainable.”

Last fiscal year, Suhoski put together a task force which looked at the impact of staffing issues on the town’s budget. The task force was made up of Guarnera, two Selectboard members, the chair of the Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee, and a representative of the firefighter’s union. He said it soon became obvious that the current level of staffing at the fire department has become “untenable.”

Guarnera explained that in 1998, the department had 24 firefighters, whereas today it has only 19. In that time, the number of calls has increased each year from about 1,100 to over 4,000. He added that in 2020, there were 387 times when two calls came in at once, leading to the station to be unable to respond if there was another call. In 2022, this happened 473 times.

“That means 473 times people called for help and we weren’t able to respond,” Guarnera said.

Polls for the special election on July 31 will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Town Hall.

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