By Marjorie Nesin
---- — The Fire Department contract already signed and ready to go into effect next July 1 – one designed to keep all fire stations open 24 hours a day, seven days a week — will increase the city’s annual fire department spending too, by 25 percent above the current cost.
City administrators are still meeting and crunching numbers as they work out the plan to increase firefighters’ work hours from 42 a week to 56, but officials have narrowed down a firm cost estimate of an extra $1.6 million annually on top of the $6.2 million the city provided to the department in the current fiscal year.
“However you look at it, it’s expensive,” Kirk said. But, she added, “We’re also getting double the amount of stations open. This is part of what we’ve worked for on our financial management — restoring lost city services.”
The Fire Department is on schedule to implement the new department structure by the start of fiscal 2015 and as laid out in the contract signed by city officials and the fire department’s union leader in June.
The city had appropriated $5.8 million for the Fire Department in the fiscal year 2013 budget, but later added free cash to increase the regularity of opening outlying stations Bay View and Magnolia, upping the spending to $6.2 million.
Kirk said her office will budget for the $1.6 million increase by likely funding half the increase, or about $800,000, with “free cash” or unbudgeted city revenues in the first year of the contract, which goes into effect next July 1. The following fiscal year, the city will budget for the entirety of the contract, easing into the new raised cost of running the department, Kirk said.
After that, said Kirk, the contract costs will be “baked into the operating budget.”
The multi-year budget plan, Kirk said, allows the city to absorb the added cost over time.
“You can’t absorb the full amount in one budget year without really disturbing other city services,” Kirk said.
The increase in firefighters’ hours is part of a major reorganizing of the department, which will consolidate the firefighters into three groups of 24 rather than the current four groups of 18 firefighters. The reorganization would allow more firefighters to be absent from the shift without the department needing to pay overtime for coverage from firefighters assigned to other shifts.
The manpower changes will also give the department the flexibility to keep all stations open under minimum-manning contract guidelines, which require the shutdown of Magnolia, Bay View and West Gloucester station gradually when the roster for any given shift falls below 18 firefighters.
The department had also considered other options, including sticking with the structure, but increasing the overtime budget and hiring an additional 24 employees would be required to keep all stations open all of the time.
Administrators estimated that increasing the overtime to the point of full staffing all day, every day would too cost an extra $1.6 million annually.
But Fire Chief Eric Smith said he and other officials do not believe the overtime increase would create a “sustainable” model because of “budget fluctuation and interruptions in operations due to fluctuating schedules and inconsistent staffing.”
The option to increase the number of firefighters working for the department rather than increase the number of hours each firefighter works would cost the department about $1.9 million per year, city officials estimated.
Municipal Resources Inc., a consulting firm that audited the department, recommended the city implement the reorganization of staffing rather than one of the other two options, Smith reiterated Monday.
“No matter how you look at it,” Smith said, “it is an expensive proposition to keep all stations including Bay View and Magnolia open 24/7/365.”
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at email@example.com.