Overtime drives increase in fire department’s budget request

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NAUGATUCK — Fire Chief Ellen Murray last week presented a budget request to the Board of Finance that would increase spending for the Naugatuck Fire Department by about 6.5%.

Murray requested a roughly $4.65 million budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year, which is an increase of $287,374 over this year’s budget.

More than half of the proposed increase comes in overtime. The budget proposal increases overtime by $164,818, or about 16.4%, to nearly $1.17 million.

The request also includes an additional $136,041, an increase of 4.5%, for salary increases, bringing the total payroll to $3.14 million.

Fire officials contend the department is understaffed, which leads to overtime costs because another firefighter has to cover a shift if someone is out or a position is vacant.

Murray said the budget is for eight firefighters for four shifts.

Eight is the minimum staffing level for firefighters, and the recommended standard is 14, Assistant Fire Chief Walt Seaman said. He said adding firefighters would also help with safety and workload.

Murray said the borough hasn’t increased staffing at the department since the late 1990s. At the time, Naugatuck had volunteer firefighters to help at the department, she said.

This year, the department will also be short a captain because no one in the department will meet the requirements to test for the position until June 2021, Murray said. The union contract doesn’t allow the borough to a hire a captain from outside the department, she said.

Murray said she has to have another captain cover for the vacant position, which also contributes to overtime costs.

The fire union has asked for an increase in staffing on and off over the years, Murray said.

“I think I will be remiss if I did not mention that I feel the department is understaffed. We go through this dance every year. We’ve not resolved anything. I’ve decided to ask you to take a different approach to this year,” Murray told the finance board during the Jan. 27 budget workshop. “Would people be willing to speak with the union? They’re (fire union) willing to talk about the impact of the overtime to see if we can come up with an agreeable way to increase the staffing.”

Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess told Murray he is open to talking with the union about the staffing issues.

The fire department can also have difficulty retaining new firefighters due to benefits offered by the borough.

Several years ago, the borough shifted all new employees out of the defined benefit pension plans and into defined contributed pension plans, similar to a 401(K) in the private sector, in which both the employee and the employer contribute to the employee’s retirement.

“The main issue is that we no longer have a pension plan. A lot of the firefighters are moving to get a pension,” Murray said in a subsequent interview.

The workshop was the first in a series of budget meetings the finance board will hold as it crafts an overall budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year.