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BUDGET: Balancing Public Safety & Fire Dept Budget Cuts

Probing the Fire Department budget, Finance Committee Chairman Prager asked Fire Chief Joe Bosselait how Department performance would be impacted if the shift coverage by full time firefighters was reduced.

Chief Bosselait said that Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. full-time firefighters are available, but some "65 percent of the calls are not covered by paid firefighters", adding that calls on Friday, Saturday and Sunday are covered by call firefighters. He pointed out that call firefighters are all work other jobs, many of them out of town and are not readily available during weekdays.

Chief Bosselait said, "In my opinion, we cannot make cuts as deep as Steve (Webber) suggested. ...The risk/reward is not in the interest of the town....We need to look hard, but not sacrifice the public safety of the town," Prager said, adding that he would like to see a reduction in shifts. At an earlier meeting, Fin Com member Steve Webber suggested elimination of the paid firefighters and a return to an all call department.

Fin Com member Bud Robertson pointed out that there are three large departments in the budget, the schools, police and fire. "Everything in town is critical. We are in a tough, tough bind." He added that companies don't allow a lot of people to take vacation at the same time, and sometimes they need to stagger this.

Selectman Josh Degen suggested that management work with the Firefighters union to address the issue of their agreement that there must be three fulltime firefighters and one per diem that are on during the day. The goal of the discussion would be to allow two per diem firefighters on each day, thus eliminating having to call in a fulltime firefighter at time and a half, thus reducing the overtime expenses.

'My integrity is on the line and if I say I'll do it, I'll do it', says Chief Palma

Police Chief Donald Palma, addressing request for budget increases to ensure adequate coverage for the 33 square mile town, told the Finance Committee that their proposed police budget reductions request would require "risk management." He added, "I don't believe it is safe," and pointed out that when there is a major event, he and Lt. James Cullen always respond along with the officers on duty.

During January, February and March, there are fewer calls than other times of year, he said. During these winter months, two officers are scheduled during the day in addition to the Chief and Lieutenant. But, he explained that there are greater needs during but the summer and when school starts up and during school vacations. He added that during these periods he tries "to keep three officers on for the 3-11 shifts."

Resident Troy Fulton told officials he was having a 'heart attack' hearing that there are only two officers on duty, and asked Chief Palma about recommended staffing levels, in view of the size and population of Groton. The Chief responded that FBI guidelines recommend 1.9 officers for every 1000 population. That would mean Groton should "have 22 officers and currently we have 18 officers including the Chief." He pointed out that every year he comes back to the Finance Committee requesting three officers instead of two. "The reason we ask is if there is an incident on Townsend road, we can still respond if there is an incident at the same time at Four Corners."

Fin Com Chairman Jay Prager asked the Chief if he could manage the department with the budget he submitted, and Chief Palma responded, "Yes, I think I can."

Fin Com member David Manugian said he had looked through the Police Dept. audit and said, "I agree with the Chief." Manugian suggested that an additional hire as opposed to overtime expenses might be a good move. "I'd like to see how this plays out. My thoughts on this have changed," he said. The chief advised that he presented a proposal for an additional hire two years ago because we "wanted to be ahead of the curve. We can manage for this year, but for three to five years out we need to look at the full picture."

Chief Palma pointed out that a "hire takes an entire budget cycle" before the new officer starts to show results. Although this would certainly help with overtime, he stressed that "We just can't stop investigations. Investigations just don't stop at 4 p.m. You need to understand that any savings takes a full budget cycle."

Chairman Prager commented that today we operate under a different structure. "Now we have a Town Manager and a competent Police Chief and this has shifted thinking. Adding one more guy won't necessarily fix this. We as a committee have been told by these two gentlemen that they can manage the department without a deficit. And we need to give them a chance to do this."

Chief Palma responded, "I have looked at where we are since Halloween and I am comfortable, barring some extraordinary event, that we can manage this. I'd like to say this is a workable solution. My integrity is on the line and if I say I'll do it, I'll do it."

Police Dept. budget overtime has been similarly cut over the last several years, and there is always a budget transfer required to cover the overtime expenses. After a three year audit, of Police Department overtime, it was proved that the request for additional funds matched the actual overtime expenses.

Fin Com member Bob Hargraves told the Chief that he made "unfair comments" regarding backfilling being out of control, noting that overtime is an issue in contracts for both Police and Fire Departments.

Groton Herald

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