Jean Perry, Neighb News Correspondent
“From what I can recall, this is, across the board, …. the most challenging budget that I’ve seen in my time,” Fairhaven Finance Committee Chairperson Padraic Elliott said of Fiscal Year 2022 after meeting with the Fire and Police Departments during the Finance Committee’s 2/18 meeting.
It will cause town departments, he said, “some level of hardship and some tightening,” but concurred, “I do agree that safety has to be highest on the list in terms of priority.”
The initial budgets that police and fire/EMS had submitted included an additional full-time dispatcher; however, as Finance Director/Interim Town Administrator Wendy Graves explained during the FinCom’s 2/11 meeting, all departments had been instructed to cut 10% of their requested budgets, including all requests for additional staff.
Police Chief Michael Meyers presented a $131,000 cut in his requested wages and salaries line item that included three new positions: a part-time custodian, full-time social worker, and a full-time dispatcher.
Fairhaven had two dispatchers working side by side until FY10, Chief Meyers said, when the town had to lay off several town employees to balance its budget amidst the recession.
“And we haven’t replaced it back,” said Chief Myers. Since then, 911 calls have increased, “And we’re going up and up and up…”
Last Sunday, he said, a firefighter was called over to dispatch to cover the phones because all officers had to respond to an influx of calls.
FinCom Member Lisa Plante wanted to know if keeping with one dispatcher could delay response time to 911 emergencies.
As Chief Meyers described it, when a major incident occurs, “[Calls] come in a lot, and fast.” The dispatcher cannot hang up on one call to answer another until help is established for the first call. As people call 911 in response to a major incident, those calls are subsequently forwarded to Acushnet, said Chief Meyers. But it isn’t just 911 calls that dispatchers must answer.
Acting Fire Chief Todd Correia explained that the dispatcher answering 911 calls must also attend to the radio calls from police and fire/EMS out in the community and on the scene. When there is a fire, for example, all personnel are dispatched to the scene. Meanwhile, police and EMS may already be out responding to other calls.
“Yes, we go through it now,” said Chief Meyers. He said that on average across the nation, the department’s call rate would typically be handled by two dispatchers 24/7 and said. “Right now, that’s too much for one person.”
Acting Chief Correia said Fairhaven has so far avoided using an automated phone response to a 911 call. Still, when he is forced to keep a qualified firefighter or EMT at the station to cover dispatch, public safety is compromised.
For fire, he said, often there is a lull in activity; however, if two dispatchers were covering both police and fire/ EMS, they could handle any overflow between departments and keep 911 working efficiently. Nonetheless, both chiefs acknowledged that this year a second dispatcher appears unlikely.
The Police Department’s request for a full-time licensed social worker appealed to some FinCom members but, again, conceded that it would likely have to wait for a more fruitful fiscal year.
“It’s something that as soon as … Fairhaven can afford to move forward with this program would be extremely beneficial to all of us,” said Chief Meyers.
As police officers, he said, “We don’t feel that we are the most qualified people to be dealing with [residents with addiction and mental health issues],” adding later that a social worker would “greatly reduce tragedies here in Fairhaven.”
Ms. Plante and FinCom member Christopher Fidalgo both agreed the added dispatcher is worth considering.
“I think the dispatcher is a need, not a want, in my opinion,” said Ms. Plante. “I know things are tight, but I believe it’s a need, not a want.”
“Definitely, if more money comes available, public safety would be the first place that we’d be looking to restore,” said Ms. Graves,
The fire/EMS and police budgets were classified as level-service for FY22, as was the Marine Resources budget, also reviewed that evening.
FinCom member Bernie Roderick asked about replenishing free cash after Town Meeting members approved $1.2 million for turf at the high school athletic field from free surplus revenue/free cash instead of borrowing. After the article passed, there was only $715,000 to spend on capital projects for FY22, said Ms. Graves, eliciting gasps and visible reactions of shock from some FinCom members.
Ms. Graves added that the town is currently short on money to cover three months of its Health Insurance Trust Fund. The town will also only allot $200,000 to the OPEB (other post-employment benefits) Fund for FY22. The policy was to increase the amount by $50,000 each year, but instead, this year, the town will deposit $100,000 less than FY21.
In terms of curtailing spending, Mr. Elliott proposed possibly refraining from offering a COLA (cost of living allowance) increase to non-union employees, although the town has historically offered the same annual percentage increase to non-union as it had for negotiated union employees.
Just before adjourning, Mr. Fidalgo asked to discuss the town administrator hiring process, specifically with Mr. Roderick, the FinCom’s appointed representative to the Town Administrator Screening Committee and subsequently that committee’s chairperson.
As Mr. Roderick started to explain the logistics of the process, FinCom member Kevin Gallagher pointed out that the topic was not listed on the agenda and asked to table the discussion, list it as an agenda item for a future meeting, and avoid any perceived violation of the Open Meeting Law. Mr. Elliott, as a precaution, agreed.
“Can I just say something?” said Ms. Graves. “The whole thing with … you know, certain people being writing something to all the [FinCom] members about me, and that’s ok. But what they don’t know is I was a finalist. And the very next week, that article* went in the paper, and then it was re-voted, and I wasn’t a finalist. So, that’s the whole story.”
On 2/25, the FinCom will review the School Department budget and the Finance, Treasurer, and Tax Collector budgets.
*Ms. Graves was referring to a Neighb News article titled “Graves named interim TA despite recent concerns” by Jean Perry and Beth David featured in the 1/14 edition.
Support local journalism, donate to the Neighb News with PayPal.