FinCom Identifies Housing As Town’s Top Priority
CHATHAM — In the spirit of holding the line on expenses during the pandemic, Fire Chief David DePasquale did not ask for new full-time firefighters in the fiscal 2022 town budget, even though he’s made it clear that the extra hands are needed. Last week, having heard that the finance committee could support the idea, the select board asked Town Manager Jill Goldsmith to add two full-time equivalent firefighter positions to the spending plan.
Traditionally, the town has sought to fill staffing shortages by paying overtime to existing firefighters, thus avoiding the cost of training, equipping and providing benefits for new staff. And while the town has boosted the overtime budget appropriately, DePasquale said the strategy is now taking its toll on the department.
The department now provides an average of 400 hours of overtime for each firefighter annually, the chief said. “That’s 10 40-hour weeks these guys are working, besides their regular shifts,” he said. “When we keep increasing our overtime budget, they keep working and working and working.” The current staffing model is not sustainable because it is causing staff to burn out, he said. “We can’t keep doing it. At some point we’re going to break,” he said.
The town commissioned a study on fire department staffing in 2011, and the study recommended hiring four full-time firefighters.
“That’s when we had 10 call people,” DePasaquale said, referring to part-time call firefighters. “Now we have zero.” The department also has hundreds more responses than it had in 2011, he added.
“There’s been a shift in the underlying perspective of the finance committee,” FinCom Chairman Stephen Daniel told the select board. “There is a real need out there that can’t really be managed through a model that doesn’t seem to be working, the call firefighter model,” he said. When a request for full-time staff comes to the finance committee, it will likely be favorably received, Daniel said.
The town has applied for a federal Staffing For Adequate Fire And Emergency Response (SAFER) Grant, which would completely fund salary and benefits for four full-time firefighters, Goldsmith said. But competition for that grant is expected to be extreme this year, she noted.
Select board member Dean Nicastro noted that DePasquale didn’t request the additional staff when he made his budget presentation several weeks ago.
“I’m not sure what changed,” he said.
DePasquale said he certainly would like to have four additional firefighters in the next budget, “but the directive we got from, I thought everybody, was we’re going to try to keep the budget as low as we can” because of the pandemic and the drop in town revenues resulting from the economic downturn. “We want to play ball with everybody, and we know the [fiscal] situation that’s out there, and that’s why I didn’t push for it. But we’re going to have to do something.”
DePasquale said he had proposed earlier hiring the Barnstable County Sheriff’s Office to take over the dispatch function for the department, as it has done for Harwich and Orleans. Doing so would free up firefighters for responses and save the town money, he said.
“But that’s three years out, anyway, if we can get in then,” he said. The town also can’t count on receiving the SAFER grant, he added.
“This is, to me, about quality of life for the people that work here in this town, and for their well-being, as well,” Select board Chair Shareen Davis said. The department has performed well, particularly during the pandemic, but even without that extra pressure it needs to have sufficient staffing, she said.
Chatham’s firefighters do their jobs well and willingly, Nicastro noted.
“I’d hate to see the morale go down because we’re putting too much stress and pressure on them,” he said.
The board voted unanimously to have Goldsmith revise the operating budget to include two additional full-time equivalent firefighters, and to transmit that budget to the finance committee for official consideration.
Earlier in the meeting, Daniel expressed the finance committee’s thoughts on this year’s draft spending plans, saying town officials were wise to take a conservative approach to spending during the pandemic, given declines in revenue. There are predictions that the country’s gross domestic product may increase in the upcoming year, and while the town should keep taking a careful approach to spending, “we are cautiously optimistic that we may be able to outperform, at least on the revenue side,” he said.
There were around 600 pending or closed home sales in Chatham in 2020, an increase of about 350 from the year before, Daniel noted, and the median selling price was markedly higher. While the real estate industry is strong, the trend underscores the need for affordable and attainable housing for year-round families, he said.
“We think at this point there’s no higher municipal priority for the town of Chatham than the creation of significant numbers of affordable and attainable housing units here in town,” he said. Daniel praised the select board for pursuing a number of housing projects for the next town meeting, but warned that there will be some opposition. “We really encourage persistence and perseverance in pursuing this goal,” he said.
Daniel said he was disappointed that the select board opted against using the former water department building on Old Harbor road – formerly a single-family home – as an affordable home under the town’s existing rental escrow program. The old house has been vacant for more than a decade and is in danger of falling victim to neglect, he said. The town has the opportunity to use the house to provide a home for a family “and make a statement about our intentions” when it comes to producing more units, he said.
Absent a significant effort to create housing, “we have a very different future than I think we would all like to see and hold for this town,” Daniel said.