WHITMAN — Selectmen’s discussions centering on budget priorities and travel expense policies at their Tuesday, July 10 meeting raised a question for consideration over whether a town ambulance service is cost-effective.
“I’m not suggesting that we change … but I think what we’re going to need as we go through this year is an assessment,” said Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski, who raised the question since Fire Chief Timothy Grenno was present for an executive session and could respond to the posit.
“One of the things I would ask [Grenno] when he comes in to discuss his budget is what it costs to run the ambulance service as opposed to out-sourcing,” he said. “If we were to choose another ambulance service, what would be the financial consequences of that?”
Kowalski noted that Grenno has reported in the past that the bulk of emergency calls to the Fire Department over the last several years have been for medical emergencies. Grenno agreed that EMS calls had been about 80 percent of all calls for a time, but said fire calls have now increased to where the split is closer to between 64 to 68 percent EMS calls.
“I can tell you that fire vs. EMS responses in this town have almost matched themselves,” Grenno said. “Fire responses have been climbing over the years.”
Funding the new police station within the levy limit is another issue Kowalski said would be revisited during budget review.
Grenno argued that the town is dealing with the effects of a $2 million loss in Local Aid since the recession in 2008.
“We live with that,” he said, noting he has met department needs at the detriment of the expense line. “If I have a vehicle break down, that could wipe out my expense line.”
“I didn’t mean to set you up,” Kowalski said. “It’s just the kind of thing that we need to think about.”
Selectman Scott Lambiase, who was unable to attend the meeting because of work demands, forwarded his thoughts on a possible next step in the board’s budget review process, suggesting another joint meeting with the Finance Committee one more time to ensure the two boards are on the same page as far as a schedule for future work is concerned. Kowalski slated that for the first meeting in August.
“We don’t want to be duplicating what the Finance Committee does,” he said. “They bring the department heads in, although in the past, what has happened when they bring department heads in each year, the department heads tell them what they’d like to do and it’s eventually whittled down.”
Kowalski reiterated the Selectmen’s plan to have department heads come before them to provide “some kind of idea what they would do if they were level-funded next year” or if they had to make cuts.
Selectman Brian Bezanson asked about whether the town could or should go to a zero-based budget.
“We may have to look at ways to do business differently and there might have to be some very uncomfortable decisions,” Bezanson said. “Knowing what the community thinks is important, maybe we can tailor our services as such.”
Town Administrator Frank Lynam said that contracted salaries — the largest portion of the municipal budget — require that a zero base be whatever contracts require for that year.
“We’re not building on last year’s budget,” he said. “As far as expenses go, other than public safety, the expense lines have not grown significantly or, in many cases, have not grown at all over the last several years.”
Departments already look to how much they calculate needing to spend each year to operate effectively and, in reviewing those budgets, the Finance Committee typically looks at the previous year’s budget compared to requests for the coming year.
Lambiase also argued that the proposed travel and expense policy is “well-thought out and fairly comprehensive,” but continued to question whether such a detailed policy is needed. The issue has again been tabled for further discussion.
“I prefer the simpler approach,” he stated. “The department heads are responsible adults. If we give them the guidelines and they go outside the guidelines, the accountant would simply kick back the reimbursement request. I don’t see the need for prior approval from the board or town administrator for travel.”
Under the proposed policy, out-of-state travel would require prior approval.
Selectman Randy LaMattina agreed with Lambiase’s argument, as did Kowalski, who said some guidance is probably needed.
Lynam said many towns have designations for how much can be spent in particular areas, requiring a measure of practicality in spending those funds.
“We have never identified what is an appropriate amount of money,” he said. “I think there has to be an upper limit. Is it $5,000? Is it $10,000? How much should we expect would be a reasonable amount of money to handle these things?”
Kowalski said if prior approval was going to be required, then some guidance should be provided concerning what might be approved. Lynam agreed, stating most conference travel involves professional development, networking and sharing and developing better ways to do their jobs.
“It’s not a junket,” he said. “Many of them are out of state.”
Grenno said that many of the international fire chiefs’ conferences are usually in Texas or Chicago — and quipped that he tries to avoid Texas in hot weather.
“The speakers they have at those conferences are five-star, gold speakers,” Grenno said. “Our conference in Worcester is good, we get a lot of knowledge, but we have to maintain so many credits and points to maintain our credentials of our chief officers.”
The state association meets in Worcester and he tries to send his line officers to the three-day sessions, which cost under $1,000 each.
“There are times, when money is tight, when there are moratoria on out-of-state travel,” Kowalski said, stressing that he does see value in that kind of conference.
“If we’re talking about an override [that’s] talking out of both sides of our mouths,” Bezanson said of such travel being approved. “I’m uncomfortable with that.”
Kowalski agreed the policy needed tightening up a bit.
In other business, Selectmen voted to officially designate Assistant Town Administrator Lisa Green as Chief Procurement Officer by a vote against changing the town’s current arrangement placing that duty with the assistant town administrator. Lambiase continued to advocate for changing the CPO to the town administrator.
“The chief procurement officer title goes to the position of the person holding the job, not to the person,” Kowalski said. “This board in 2013 voted unanimously to give it to the assistant town administrator.”
Greg Enos held that post at the time. Green not only continues to perform that job, she holds the required credentials, which Lynam has not completed. Lynam had taken the first three courses, but was unable to attend the fourth due to a death in his family and two subsequent sessions were over-subscribed. A CPO is required to approve requests for qualifications. Lynam lacks the credential to approve RFQs.
The board tabled a vote on the amended WHRSD Regional Agreement until a full board is present.