Haverhill Mayor James J. Fiorentini and leaders of the local firefighters union are scheduled to meet this week to discuss a projected $200,000 shortfall in the Fire Department’s overtime budget, a looming financial crisis that may translate into the loss of the city’s rescue truck come March 1.
It’s clear that neither the mayor nor the firefighters who serve this riverside city are in favor of taking Rescue 1 out of service. But given the impending deficit, Fiorentini says he has little choice. The city, he says, must implement temporary changes in the staffing of the Fire Department to curb overtime costs.
“I’m not blaming the firefighters - it’s not their fault - but the fact is we have a $200,000 shortfall,’’ said Fiorentini. “We need to come up with that money somewhere. I don’t have an oil well in back of City Hall. The most logical place for it to come from is this department.’’
The mayor has put the Fire Department on notice.
The city, he said, intends to take its rescue truck out of service or reduce the manning on the vehicle until the deficit is remedied.
Gregory Roberts, president of Haverhill Firefighters Local 1011, said neither option is feasible.
Shutting down Rescue 1 or reducing the number of firefighters assigned to it “would compromise the safety of the firefighters and the citizens we are sworn to protect,’’ he said.
Rescue 1 is housed at the Water Street fire station and is staffed around the clock by three firefighters. The truck is deployed on search and rescue missions, and contains all of the tools required to free people from a vehicle, including the Jaws of Life, as well as equipment needed to fill firefighters’ air tanks, Roberts said. It was not clear last week how the rescue truck’s equipment would be transported to fires and other emergencies in the event that the vehicle is retired.
“Having that apparatus at the scene makes it possible for us to meet’’ national fire safety standards, said Roberts, a 12-year veteran of the department who worked his way up the ranks, from dispatcher to lieutenant.
He said the mayor has long been aware that the Fire Department faces systemic budget woes. For years, Roberts, who served as the union’s treasurer for two years before becoming president of the local, has been calling on the mayor and City Council to fill vacant positions within the Fire Department. Local leaders have been slow to respond, he said.
“For three years, we’ve been bringing this up,’’ Roberts said. “Nobody wanted to address it.’’
The department’s $8 million budget for the current fiscal year, which began July 1, includes funding for 97 full-time positions, including 92 firefighters, Roberts said. Today, the department has 87 firefighters, according to the mayor’s office, up from 84 at this time last year.
“The mayor put forth a budget on July 1,’’ said Roberts. “In that budget, the taxpayers of Haverhill were given 92 firefighters. If he had filled all of the positions that are budgeted, he wouldn’t have this overtime problem.’’
An outside management study of the Fire Department completed last year by the California-based Matrix Consulting Group advised the city to “proceed with its plans to fill the five existing vacancies to maintain current staffing of 19 per shift, including four engines, one ladder and the rescue.’’
City records show Fiorentini has added 13 firefighters to the payroll since January 2010. However, four of them were laid-off Lawrence firefighters who chose to return to that city’s employ. In addition, two Haverhill firefighters retired. “I had hoped hiring more people would reduce overtime in a significant way, but it didn’t,’’ said Fiorentini, noting that the Fire Department’s $1.3 million overtime budget for this fiscal year has been further stressed by having three firefighters out on long-term injury leave.
According to Roberts, the staffing shortage forced the fire department to fill five 24-hour shifts each week by paying overtime. Fiorentini said the department has spent almost $1.2 million on overtime so far this fiscal year.
In past years, the mayor has proposed closing the Bradford fire house to plug budget gaps. However, the city recently completed renovations on the station and Fiorentini has said he will no longer suggest shuttering it.
Fiorentini said Public Safety Commissioner Alan DeNaro and Fire Chief Richard B. Borden proposed retiring Rescue 1 after he asked them to present a plan for averting the projected deficit.
In a letter to the mayor dated Jan. 25, Borden said taking the rescue truck out of service would save the city at least $184,232. Minimum staffing levels in the Fire Department would drop from 19 to 16 firefighters per 24-hour shift, the fire chief wrote.
Borden noted that Matrix had recommended taking the rescue truck out of service rather than closing one of the city’s four fire stations, should budget cuts be necessary. However, Roberts was quick to point out that the consulting group had cautioned that retiring the vehicle would adversely impact service levels.
Fiorentini said he is hopeful that an alternative solution can be reached.
“I am anxious to meet with them,’’ he said in reference to his upcoming discussion with union officials. “No mayor wants to cut police or fire.’’