Increased budget a bittersweet victory for Fire Department
Marissa Yaremich , Register Staff 07/01/2004
BRANFORD — Another firefighter/paramedic may join the Fire Department’s ranks should town officials agree with the Board of Finance’s decision this week to reinstate $50,000 to the upcoming fire budget.

But while the financial windfall appears generous, fire officials said they are still frustrated by the hoops they had to jump through to regain funds they claim shouldn’t have been removed in the first place.

The $50,000 is a "Band-Aid on a major wound," said Fire Chief Jack Ahern of the department’s ongoing battle for more manpower, which he said is desperately needed to ensure public and firefighter safety.

Since May, fire authorities have locked horns with the Representative Town Meeting after it cut a new firefighter’s salary from the budget, allegedly without the department’s input or blessing.

The cut added to a larger, volatile issue because it came just months after the finance board cut the Fire Department’s only other manpower request.

The dispute reached the boiling point June 2 when town officials traded barbs with fire officials. Town officials then recommended the finance board reinstate both firefighters’ salaries from contingency.

Fire Commission Chairman Robert Massey Jr. on Tuesday expressed mixed feelings about the regained funds.

"I’m grateful they did it, but I’m also disappointed because we need proper staffing," he said, stating that the 28-person roster doesn’t meet the safety needs of a department handling more than 5,400 calls per year.

"Sometimes people think you have a big wish list and want, want, want. This is a need," Massey emphasized.

Ahern agreed, saying the latest salary increase shows more of the same attitude town officials have taken with manpower requests by "fire chiefs since 1962."

If the reinstated money is approved by the RTM, Ahern said he would cover the position with existing personnel and overtime until the new person is hired and trained, which takes up to four months.

"It’s critical we get at least that one person in there," he said.

Finance Director James Finch Jr. said the finance board’s decided that reinstating one position would meet the Fire Department’s immediate needs while not hampering the town’s contingency fund. The $50,000 transfer reduces contingency to $660,935, effective Thursday.

"Because the (fiscal) year has yet to begin, we’ll have to see how all the other department budgets hold up during the year," said Finch.

Contingency funds may also be depleted if the town must pay retroactive wages for the ongoing negotiations on the fire contracts, which expired one year ago. Other town employee contracts are also being negotiated.

The finance board also encouraged Ahern and Massey to continue an ongoing dialogue so the town has a better understanding of the department’s needs before budgets are set.

Marissa Yaremich can be reached at myaremich@nhregister.comor at 789-5742.

©New Haven Register 2004

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