WHITMAN — While town officials prepare the fiscal 2020 budget, resident Shawn Kain has advocated a more transparent document outlining the needs behind various funding requests.
Selectmen got a glimpse of how that might look in Fire Chief Timothy Grenno’s departmental report, which focused on how budget cuts might affect fire and EMT services in town.
Selectmen are also advocating a pre-Town Meeting, perhaps in March, to help explain the budgetary needs facing the town.
“This is the kind of document that, kind of, Shawn wants to have,” said Selectman Randy LaMattina. “As the chief was speaking, I’m thinking to myself, if this had a fixed asset list and a little bit of Article 2 numbers on it, then our Fire Department [report] is complete. The taxpayer’s going to be able to make an educated decision based off this.”
He said it may be the kind of document that all other departments should produce and, “with that, the budget document falls into place.”
Selecman Brian Bezanson said he did not think the board had ever been supplied that kind of comprehensive information before.
Grenno’s report was sobering.
“It has taken 10 years to get to where we are with six members per shift — shift staffing is what it’s all about — maintaining six people per shift gives this community the service that they demand,” Grenno said of his current budget outlook. “Anything less than what I have requested for fiscal 2020, will not be level-budgeted, but with contractual obligations, is a detriment to the fire service and the public safety in Whitman.”
Grenno forwarded his report to Selectmen, including a cost justification study. As of the Nov. 27 writing of his report, Grenno said the department had responded to 2,249 emergency calls in 2018 — 58.7 percent for EMS and 41.3 percent for fires — illustrating that the shift had gone from all fires in the 1960s to mostly EMS by the 1990s when the difference began to even out by the 2000s.
“Those numbers justify what we’re doing every day,” he said. “That type of call volume demands the level of service that we’re currently providing.”
The three firefighters added in 2016 marked the first addition of staffing to the department since it went full time in 1965, according to Grenno. Fire-based ambulance had been added in 1973 with no addition to staffing.
“It’s a document that we need this year, obviously we need it,” said Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski, apologizing that he had not yet had the chance to study the report.
On a positive note, the number of overdoses responded to by the Fire Department is down to 29, from more than 40 last year. Grenno said the availability of Narcan may be helping some people treat family members or friends without calling 911. He did caution that Narcan is short-acting and one dose is often not enough to counteract some of the opiate drugs out there.
“So the overdoes we are seeing are very significant,” he said.
Key points of Grennos’ cost justification study were:
• A second ambulance is “saving a significant amount of critical patients” who would be at risk without it. “Without staffing, these patients, who would have had to wait an excess of 10 or 15 minutes for an outside ambulance, it would have been fatal to them,” Grenno said.
• Grants are a significant revenue source, including a $6,500 SAFE grant, which funds fire education in the schools. A grant for a bit more than $230,000 replaced outdated self-contained breathing apparatus. Grenno has also applied for a $35,000 grant to replace the generator system at the fire station.
• A budget cut of between 3 and 6 percent would have a “significant impact” on services, according to Grenno, who has asked the Finance Committee for the number they predict will be available to the Fire Department before he provides a specific impact statement.
Feeling the cuts
Fiscal 2020, begins the third year of a collective bargaining agreement that would put the deputy chief on days and add new OSHA regulations, which go into effect in February 2019, under his responsibility.
“We need $300,000 just to make our building OSHA-compliant,” Grenno said. “We’ve got a lot of problems facing us down the road.”
A 3-percent reduction of $3,737,895 would eliminate that position, keeping it on shift. It also “pulls the Fire Department back 10 years from where we are today,” Grenno said, eliminating any small services for the community, including touch-a-truck events for fundraisers, banners and other events.
The IT position, which includes reporting software for providing data to the state, as well as building the database of critical information to firefighters in the field through the dispatch system, would also be eliminated. Light maintenance would also be cut from the budget under a 3-percent reduction, with out-sourced repairs costing about $260-$300 per hour.
Storm coverage would have to be eliminated, as well, Grenno said. Instead of up-staffing at a cost of between $30,000 and $40,000 to respond to downed trees and power lines as they happen, calls will be prioritized and stacked as they come in.
“When we get there, we get there,” he said.
The two-member call department would be eliminated and reduce training officer availability to eight hours per month. The EMS officer would be reduced to 20 hours per month, where Grenno had planned to negotiate placing that officer on days in a supervisory role.
“That will threaten our certification, quite frankly,” Grenno said. Call-back and overtime would also have to be reduced, risking an empty station at times.
Kain, a former member of the Finance Committee, had kicked off the meeting with a request for an update on progress toward a capital plan and budget document during the public forum.
Town Administrator Frank Lynam said the process is underway, but staffing shortages affect it. The town has received grants for both the budget model and capital planning. The Collins Center at UMass has presented a proposal and two others are being looked at for a capital plan, but all are telling the town they are looking at about three months of work.
That will be done parallel to the current process in order to complete the budget.
“Having a professional budget document is excellent, but something for the public to analyze as this process continues will be extremely helpful,” Kain said, noting that Article 2 is helpful for people who know what they are looking at, but that it is not detailed or user-friendly.
Lynam said a general outline is not yet available but that Article 2 is detailed, but that a format with historical background will take more time and argued the public has been well informed of the budget cost, increasing percentage of debt and school budget impact.
“What we have are departments projecting what would happen if the budget is cut 3 percent or if the budget is cut 6 percent,” he said. “I stated at our last meeting, I don’t think that is the approach we should be taking. We should be building parallel budgets — one with cuts and one that will identify what we need to seek in additional funding to make that work.”