Public Safety Budget Request Up Nearly 6 Percent

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Police, Fire And Harbormaster News , Municipal Finance

Chatham and Harwich firefighters.  FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM Driven by personnel costs, and particularly overtime expenses, the town's public safety budget requests are up 5.92 percent over the current year's spending plan.

The police and fire department budgets make up the majority of the $6.18 million request, though the figure also includes the animal control officer, emergency management, oil pollution control and a contribution to the Cape and Islands emergency medical services system. All tolled, the public safety budget is about 15 percent of the town's operating budget, excluding the schools and debt service.

While staffing levels are unchanged in the FY18 spending plan, the overtime budget is up around $43,000 for the police department, and about $145,000 for the fire department.

“Overtime is a bit elusive,” Police Chief Mark Pawlina told the board of selectmen last week. In past years, the police overtime budget has dropped when the department is fully staffed, he said, but in the past year and a half, two officers have been out on long-term injured leave. “That impacts us pretty heavily,” the chief said. Most of the time, particularly during the summer, those shifts need to be filled, he said.

In addition, as more police officers earn seniority, their allowed vacation time increases, causing an increased need for overtime. Even if the number of overtime hours holds steady, police officers have a 3 percent cost of living adjustment each year, raising their base pay rate.

“Which means when they work overtime, the overtime rate is higher,” Pawlina said.

Town officials are seeking a larger overtime increase in the fire department, where there are also some firefighters out on injured leave. Fire Chief Michael Ambriscoe said a 2011 study of the department's staffing concluded that overtime costs would be reduced if two vacant positions were filled, and if each of the department's four shifts were increased by one firefighter to seven people, rather than the current six. Filling the two vacant positions helped stabilize overtime use, the chief said, but there is still a need to increase staffing.

“Adding a seventh firefighter on each shift would definitely reduce overtime. The study said that, and I've been recommending it for years,” Ambriscoe said. Based on the current number of responses, “if we had a seventh firefighter on each of the shifts, we would've saved $214,000 in overtime” last year, he said.

Selectman Dean Nicastro asked how the department's staffing levels compare with those of similar-sized departments in the area.

“They're in the same boat we are,” in that most are understaffed, Ambriscoe said.

The overtime budgets are one component of the public safety budget proposal. Police salaries and wages are $2.47 million, and fire personnel costs are just over $3 million.

The spending plan also addresses some of the departments' capital needs. The police capital budget is around $190,000 and includes funds for new police radios, a new video recording system and laptop computers. The plan also calls for the replacement of two vehicles. Not funded in the police capital budget were digital recording devices for cruisers and upgrades to the 800 megahertz radio system.

The fire budget included $123,500 in requests, but town officials are only seeking funding for items totaling $103,500. Most of the items are ambulance equipment, but the plan also includes new radios and a replacement for the Jaws of Life rescue tool. The department is also seeking $248,000 for a new ambulance and $35,000 for a replacement staff vehicle.

Some of the capital items are mandated by state regulators “and they can't be pushed out another year,” Finance Director Alix Heilala said. But other items, like a $20,000 request for new fire nozzles and adapters, were postponed.

Ambriscoe said the department has been very successful in obtaining grant funds, thanks largely to the efforts of Deputy Chief Peter Connick. In addition to grants for fire safety education, the department received $500,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a new pumper, and another large grant to replace aging emergency breathing apparatus. Another grant is helping replace portable radios that date from the 1990s, the chief said.

“These were all items that were going to go on the capital plan,” Ambriscoe noted.

With his retirement coming at the end of next month, Ambriscoe was likely giving selectmen his final budget update. The board voted unanimously to thank him for his “superlative service to the town.”

“Thank you,” the chief said. “It's been an honor.”