In the seven months since Natick Fire Chief James Sheridan was placed on paid administrative leave, the department has spent more than $30,000 on interim promotions, and paid him more than $68,000. It is also on pace to exceed its overtime budget by about $100,000, due to the leave and other staffing challenges, according to town officials.
Members of the Board of Selectmen and Town Administrator Martha White have remained quiet on the circumstances surrounding Sheridan’s leave since it was put in place by selectmen on July 9. They refused to comment on it when contacted last week.
Despite the increases in spending in the department, White’s preliminary municipal spending plan for next fiscal year calls for a $7.51 million budget for the Fire Department, up less than $8,000 from this year.
But White said the budget, presented last month, was not an indication that the situation with Sheridan would be resolved before the 2014-15 fiscal year begins July 1.
“We went with assuming things will have normalized,” White said Tuesday. “We had to make a choice one way or the other, budget-wise. It’s not based on any set of facts.”
Deputy Fire Chief Rick White has led the department on an interim basis since Sheridan’s leave began, setting off a ripple effect of temporary promotions. A captain is serving as the interim deputy chief, a lieutenant as a captain, and a firefighter as a lieutenant.
The town has spent $30,589 toward the salary increases for the promotions, including $15,889 paid to the interim chief, the town administrator said.
‘I don’t know anything that’s going on with the situation. They’ve kept us totally out in the dark.’
The reshuffling has also left the department one firefighter short, with a total staff of 84, the interim chief said. That has contributed to the ballooning overtime expenses, but has not been the only factor, he said.
Five new firefighters, included in the total of 84, were hired last year but have taken longer than expected to get through the fire academy and training, leaving the department with a smaller crew than expected, and several firefighters have suffered on-the-job injuries that have resulted in some shifts having smaller crews, he said.
The department’s budget for this year allots $687,500 for overtime. Through last month, the department had spent $509,485, Town Administrator White said.
Based on a review of overtime spending from February through June over the last five years, Rick White said, he estimates the department will likely exceed its OT budget by about $104,000 by the end of the fiscal year.
The interim chief said he has not been given any details surrounding Sheridan’s leave. From an operations standpoint, the department had been running well, he said.
“I don’t know anything that’s going on with the situation,” Rick White said. “They’ve kept us totally out in the dark. We don’t know.’’
Reached by phone, Selectwoman Carol Gloff, the board’s chairwoman , would not discuss Sheridan’s status. Other members of the board reached by phone last week deferred comment to Gloff.
“We have an obligation to deal with any personnel matters that come up, so at this point the chief is on administrative leave,” Gloff said. “I can’t comment on it any further. We can’t comment on personnel matters.”
Attempts to reach Sheridan last week were not successful.
Martha White said officials could seek a budget supplement at Town Meeting to address the funding shortfall in the Fire Department, but a request for a transfer from the town’s reserve fund, which would have to be approved by the town’s Finance Committee, was more likely.Jarret Bencks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org