Smaller number proposed for Athol Fire Department hires

Athol’s Fire Department Staffing Advisory Committee meets  Wednesday to discuss a revised approach to hiring new firefighters.

Athol’s Fire Department Staffing Advisory Committee meets Wednesday to discuss a revised approach to hiring new firefighters. PHOTO BY GREG VINE

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 01-19-2024 4:38 PM

ATHOL – Another override for new firefighters appears to be in the town’s future, but the number could look very different.

At its meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 17, the Fire Department Staffing Advisory Committee met to compare options for how best to shore up the fire staff in Athol.

“We’re kind of like the jury,” said Committee Chair Ken Duffy. “We’ve just gone into the jury room and the jury foreman is trying to take a look at where we stand, trying to get a gauge on where jurors stand after hearing all the stuff at the trial.”

At its meeting on Jan. 10, committee members agreed that the department is in need of additional staff; how many should be hired and how to pay for them were the two questions that remain to be answered.

Principal Assessor Lisa Aldrich provided the committee with information detailing how much money would be needed to fill different numbers of positions through the use of a Proposition 2½ override. It was estimated that three firefighter/EMT/paramedics would require $286,000 — an increase of $62.31 on the annual tax bill of the average single-family home in Athol. Hiring eight new personnel would require $762,600, which would add $161.44 to an average annual tax bill.

The override that was defeated in August of last year sought eight new hires, but at a cost of $895,000: a nearly $133,000 difference from what Aldrich presented.

Town Manager Shaun Suhoski told the Athol Daily News on Thursday that the difference comes from the type of employees the town was hoping to hire. Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera has sought eight firefighter/paramedics. Paramedics, he explained, are able to provide Advanced Life Support (ALS) services. This latest estimate is based on the idea of hiring only three firefighter/paramedics and five firefighter/EMTs. EMTs, said Suhoski, provide Basic Life Support (BLS).

“For every person we hire we need to budget $95,329,” Suhoski said. “That includes salary, all benefits, including health insurance, dental insurance, and it includes retirement adjustments — so we fund everything. Essentially, I am going to do everything I can to present to the town a budget that adds at least one (firefighter) in my budget; we’re going to find $95,000 out of new revenue, which competes with health insurance increases, retirement system increases, any school district assessment, and regular payroll costs and inflation.”

Reviewing the options

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At Wednesday’s meeting, Duffy asked committee members what they saw as the best option.

Brian Dodge said he began his tenure on the committee opposed to the idea asking voters to consider another override, especially in light of last year’s ballot question being defeated by a two-to-one margin.

“I’ve softened my stance on that a little bit, I think,” he said. “After meeting and talking and listening to everything said in these meetings, we obviously need to help (the Fire Department). You’re not going to get the eight; you might get to five or six, done in combination with the budget. But we’re not quite sure yet what (Suhoski) can find in the budget. So, I would think we could push across three on an override, at $381,000. Get one through the budget. He doesn’t know his numbers now, but if the numbers happen to better than what we assume, put a second one through the budget, so we’ll end up with five.”

Dodge then suggested an override seeking three new hires, with a fourth to come from the budget.

“I get out quite a bit, especially with the elderly and veterans’ groups and they’re deeply concerned about what it costs,” he said.

“I would be in favor of three (by override),” said Jeff Thiem, “but only if the town will get one in the budget. If the town can’t come up with a way to fund one position – the town has to show they’re trying without asking the taxpayers to do more.”

Jon Costa said, “I voted for the eight, originally. I would rather see the eight, but I know we can’t do that. So, I guess four is better than nothing, while hoping we can still get the eight, eventually.”

“I think the target we want to get to this year is ultimately five,” said Rebecca Bialecki who, like Dodge, represents the Selectboard on the committee. “But, I think that we could do three through an override, one in the budget, even if it means making some minor cuts in other departments; I just want to put that out there because that’s the reality of what we might have to do with our budget. I hope that’s not the case, but we don’t know the Cherry Sheet (state aid) numbers yet.

Ultimately, the consensus did appear to be in favor of three new firefighters through the override process, with one to be included in Suhoski’s FY24 budget. In addition, committee members all expressed support for moving ahead in order to ensure an override question will be placed on the April 1 Town Election ballot. For that to happen, the advisory committee plans to make a formal recommendation at its meeting this week. That recommendation will then be forwarded to the Selectboard.

Athol Fire Department Staffing Advisory Committee meetings are open to the public. Its next meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 24, in Liberty Hall at Town Hall.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvine@adn.com.