The development of the FY18 budget, which voters will debate and approve at this year’s Annual Town Meeting on April 3, is entering the final weeks. The Finance Committee and the Board of Selectmen will finalize the proposed budget by the first week in March. A public forum on the draft budget will be held at the next Selectmen’s meeting scheduled for February 21 to provide residents another opportunity to weigh in before the proposed budget goes to print.
While there are many components to the budget, we are spending a significant amount of time examining our public safety operations. In particular, we are debating how best to ensure we have a full complement of fire fighters to respond to emergency medical calls and active fires. We have 12 career fire fighters who work in teams of three on 24 hour shifts. Voters approved this relatively robust staffing many years ago when the choice was made to provide a high level of town sponsored ambulance service. However, with various leave time for our career staff, we often have just two on duty at a time. In the past we have relied on call fire fighters to join our career fire fighters in order to have the desired minimum of four fire fighters at a fire scene. A shrinking pool of call fire fighters has some worrying about a rapid response to emergencies. Why has the number of call fire fighters dwindled? Are people that much busier than they use to be? Are the increased training requirements too daunting? With most people working out of town are we unlikely to find enough recruits? What might we do to rejuvenate our volunteer ranks? Other towns have maintained a much more robust call force and thus spend significantly less for fire protection than we do. Will they soon be in our situation or are there lessons we can learn from them in order to reconstitute a more viable call force?
Fortunately we have strong mutual aid agreements with our neighboring communities though obviously the time it takes to get here means a longer wait. Having a neighboring fire truck role to our aid as soon as a call comes in rather than waiting for our own crew to arrive and assess the situation can help reduce response time.
Sorting this out will take some additional analysis and critical thinking. In the meantime we will likely back fill vacant shifts more often if voters approve additional funding for the department. Our public safety staff continue to do an excellent job in responding to your emergency needs and will continue to do so as we work through the challenges posed by having fewer call fire fighters.
As mentioned in my last article, our capital budget is another very important piece of the overall budget. We received a much appreciated boost in the form of a Seaport Economic Council grant for $327,000 to help repair the seawall in and around Morss Pier, our commercial fishing pier at Masconomo Park. Harbormaster Bion Pike initiated this effort and, with strong support from Representative Brad Hill and Senator Tarr, we were successful in securing these funds. We have now surpassed the $2 million mark in grant funds received in just the past three years across a wide variety of program areas, a great milestone representing funds we have not had to raise locally. Staff and I will continue to be on the look-out for these opportunities as we work to provide the services you desire.