WHITMAN — Fire Chief Timothy Grenno addressed the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, March 20 to defend his department and budget priorities against comments made at the March 6 Selectmen’s meeting and a March 1 Buildings, Facilities and Capital Expenditures Committee session.
The Selectmen’s public forum discussion led to some ideas for an earlier start to the municipal budget process.
“There have been accusations of greediness, untruthful statements and comments or decisions made by unqualified persons related to my proposed budget articles and needs requests for equipment,” Grenno said. The Selectmen’s meeting was broadcast by Whitman-Hanson Community Access TV.
He characterized Finance Committee Chairman Richard Anderson’s assertion on March 6 that, “Whitman has a spending problem,” as a “rather strong accusation coming from someone who has little experience with our town budget.” He also reminded selectmen that a year ago, Town Administrator Frank Lynam said the town has a revenue problem.
“I have a high opinion of Frank’s financial expertise related to the town budget — far more than anyone else out there. His years of experience is telling when working on budgets,” Grenno said in his prepared statement. “This year, the town’s financial needs were turned around and made into what I believe is an attack against department heads — accusations that we spend too much and that we are the problem.”
Grenno focused on comments made by the Finance Committee to the effect that a number of departments continue to appear at budget meetings “with extraordinary expectations,” in Anderson’s words.
“Those are the most unethical, accusatory statements I have ever heard from a recommending committee,” he said. “The department heads of this town work together every year to put the best financial option for this community forward.”
He said the “premature” presentation of a draft form of Article 2 during the March 6 meeting was “in my opinion, irresponsible” and a personal attack to discredit department heads “who are simply trying to do what is best for our departments and our customers.”
He said the Fincom’s presentation left taxpayers with undue anxiety and a “picture of financial disarray.” The first round of budget talks, Grenno stressed, usually includes the “wants,” while the second round boils the items down to what is needed.
Grenno also pointed to misstatements made during the March 6 Selectmen’s meeting, including that firefighter personal protective gear is contractually mandated. It is, he noted, recommend by national firefighting safety guildelines that gear be replaced every 10 years as cancer-causing agents are released in fires more frequently than in the past and become embedded in protective clothing.
“Cancer is killing firefighters at an alarming rate,” he said adding that two Whitman firefighters have been diagnosed with it in the past five years.
Police Chief Scott Benton also said a Finance Committee comment that a request for additional rifles and ammunition was never explained by his department was incorrect. He countered that he had explained to them that department shotguns are more than 20 years old and his goal to place a rifle in every cruiser.
“I don’t think I have to speak about school shootings to drive that point home,” Benton said. “But when this type of misinformation gets out to the public people start asking, ‘why do they need rifles?’ and I get it.”
Benton said he would have preferred an opportunity to more fully explain the request.
Grenno said he has never been invited to review capital requests with that committee at the March 1 meeting. The armory renovation request is intended to protect vehicles as well as to address space needs, he said.
“Did I expect $300,000 to move forward? Absolutely not — wish list stuff,” Grenno said. “I do expect discussions on the Fire Department’s space needs and a solution for the future.”
Ambulance costs were the source of most of Grenno’s disagreement with Lynam. The chief reminded officials that the $25,000 per year in ambulance maintenance comes out of the $600,000 to $700,000 in ambulance revenues each year — as well as $35,000 in billing charges, $100,000 per year in debt service for the 2001 building project, $285,154 in salary costs all of which — plus already voted lease-purchases, administrative assistant’s salary and regional dispatch — total $661,63.40 for fiscal 2019. Much of it, he said, would otherwise come from within the levy limit.
“You tell me where you can find $661,000 within the tax levy limit,” he said. “The ambulance account assures that we have the basic tools necessary to provide our critical mission of public safety.”
Lynam said he has, for years viewed the ambulance account as a captive fund that provides a great opportunity for the Fire Department to purchase capital equipment, but is at the expense of the general fund because most Massachusetts towns don’t have that account. General funds — $800,000 of a $3.2 million budget — do support the Fire Department, he added.
“I have not once, and I challenge [Grenno] or anyone to say that I have recommended discontinuing that account,” Lynam said. He said his comment was editorial in nature, and something he has said it before and would likely say it again — that the town has been fortunate enough to have decent equipment because of that fund.
“We stand equal in some areas of equipment and we stand less than [equal] in some areas,” Grenno said, noting that he has made strides to reduce costs since becoming chief. “There is no excessive or frivolous spending.”
Selectman Randy LaMattina suggested getting rid of the “wish list” process to start off, noting that the Finance Committee is a group of hard-working volunteers already working in a limited amount of time.
Grenno agreed, but said the department heads do not have a complete financial picture by the time budgets are due in December.
Selectmen Vice Chairman Dan Salvucci suggested early, prioritizing after the first round of talks with the Finance Committee before it comes to Building Needs.
“I really think we need to try a different approach,” Lynam said. “We’re working on numbers now that were initially calculated in December. With few exceptions, those numbers aren’t going to change. … We ought to start talking about budgets toward the end of the summer, not in December because we can do a first pass in September and have a pretty decent idea of what’s available.”
He said talks with both chiefs have resulted in the removal of a couple of articles that “we just know we don’t have the money to fund.” One is the armory renovation project and the other is the radio system, the latter of which will be addressed with funds voted at the December special.
Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski asked if the answer lies in Finance Committee member Shawn Kain’s suggestion to take a step backward in favor of long-range planning over always catching up.
“What you’d have to be prepared to do is to actually sit down, somehow, as a town and figure out what we value and then the money would flow that way,” Kowalski said. “It might come out completely different from what we have now.”