NAUGATUCK — After voting not to hire firefighters to replace retirees during the municipal budget process in the spring, officials relented last week.
On Dec. 9, the Joint Boards of Mayor and Burgesses and Finance voted 10-3 to transfer $122,000 from its contingency account — roughly one third of what is in the account — into the firefighter’s budget to hire three firefighters.
Fire Chief Ken Hanks recommended the transfer, which will pay for the firefighters’ salaries, training and equipment until June 30, but does not include retirement and health benefits.
Hanks argued it would cost slightly more than the salaries to pay firefighters overtime to backfill the positions, though his calculations do not include retirement and health benefits.
Per the firefighters’ union contract, vacant positions must be backfilled to meet minimum staffing requirements. The fire department has 32 firefighters and four shifts of eight firefighters apiece — eight per shift is required by the contract.
The department hired three firefighters to fill three vacancies over the summer; Hanks said three more positions will become vacant by Jan. 4, and an additional three will become vacant by the summer. He plans to ask for money to hire their replacements in next fiscal year’s budget.
He said he was reluctant to fill the positions with overtime because of safety. Firefighters work a 24-hour shift and get three days off, but if they need to work overtime, they may work 48 consecutive hours or longer. He said that is not good for firefighters or the people they are trying to protect.
Deputy Mayor Tamath Rossi agreed.
“When they come to your house and have the potential for a loss of property, and even worse a loss of life, do you want a guy who has been up for 72 hours on call after call or do you want somebody who is fresh?” she asked rhetorically.
Mayor Robert Mezzo, Board of Finance Chairwoman Diane Scinto and Board of Finance member Andy Bottinick opposed the allocation.
Mezzo and Scinto were worried about taking so much from the contingency account, money typically put toward extra sand and salt during rough winters.
“I certainly don’t disagree with any of the comments made in regards to public safety or with regard to the quality of our fire department,” Mezzo said. “But this is a third of our contingency in a budget that many of us here struggled to put together.”
He said there are other ways to deal with this issue through the collective bargaining process, but he would not elaborate because that process is not supposed to be discussed publicly.
He likely was referring to asking the union to lift the minimum manpower clause temporarily.