Looming showdown over fire service staffing threatens Haverhill mayor’s spending plans

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Haverhill councilors are one vote away from another budget showdown with the mayor over fire service staffing.

Councilors Monday night in 4-4 tied votes both rejected Mayor James J. Fiorentini’s $12 million spending plan for the fire department and a motion to increase the minimum number of shifts. This last vote was largely symbolic since councilors cannot add money to expenses under the city charter. They reserve the right, however, to kill the budget outright. Fire Chief Robert M. O’Brien admitted to negotiating with the mayor for a slight increase in his budget, but it’s less than he asked for.

“I have 29 years of experience and there are two fewer firefighters now. I really don’t think I get everything I want,” he said.

At stake was the minimum number of firefighters responding to a given emergency. Currently, 19 – or three per truck plus an assistant – are spread over calls. Haverhill Fire Department Local 1011 has long sought at least two more for safety reasons. Fiorentini said his budget put eight more crew members on the street by replacing four dispatchers with civilians and adding four new fire stations. Councilwoman Melissa J. Lewandowski expressed skepticism, however, saying there was no guarantee that more firefighters would actually be dispatched.

There were two turns in the discussion. The first came when O’Brien recognized that hiring firefighters without requiring minimum staffing might end up just relieving overtime costs. The second was a motion by Councilor John A. Michitson to reverse the dispatcher change and mandate two more firefighters per shift. The mayor initially argued that minimal staff tied the city’s hands in an emergency, but he admitted there are options.

“You can close a truck… You can close a station. Mayor (John J.) Guerin has closed the Bradford Fire Station. I reopened it. You can do that, but you can’t change the minimum staff,” he said.

Union members also noted that they let their ranks drop in 2004 during a financial crisis.

Fiorentini estimated the cost of increasing the minimum number of firefighters from three to four per truck would be $16 million over 10 years. Council Speaker Timothy J. Jordan, however, countered that the amount would largely be covered by new taxes from the planned redevelopment of downtown Lupoli. Either way, he argued, you can’t put a price tag on firefighter safety.

O’Brien told advisers his budget needed to increase due to overtime to replace injured firefighters and additional fuel costs. He said the department also needed to find garage space to protect vehicles and equipment, replace a boiler at the High Street Fire Station and replace both a 1981 Boston Whaler boat and a 1995 hovercraft with “big holes in the bottom”. O’Brien’s wishlist also includes the addition of another ladder truck which will be housed at the Bradford Fire Station. The mayor said the equipment costs are not in the budget, but rather in the city’s capital plan which he will present separately.

On capital costs, Councilman Melinda E. Barrett asked about plans to build an additional fire station closer to Interstate 495, either off Broadway or at Ward Hill. The new station would allow faster responses to calls to Ayer’s Village or Rocks Village. Fiorentini said an ongoing study by the Center for Public Safety Management will examine the issue as well as staffing.

While choosing the study provider from the four proposals received by the city, the chief said he opposed any study. O’Brien said he and the department had their own knowledge of needs and priorities. Nonetheless, Fiorentini said he chose the chef’s choice over his choice of Matrix, which has already conducted studies for the city.

The mayor made a concession, accepting an idea from Councilman Thomas J. Sullivan to spend $22,000 to replace the barracks furniture which he described as “deplorable”.

Councilors Jordan, Michitson, Lewandowski and Catherine Rogers supported rejecting the budget and increasing the minimum complement of two additional firefighters per shift. On opposite sides were Barrett, Sullivan and Joseph J. Bevilacqua and Shaun P. Toohey. The 4-4 tie votes will be reconsidered before a final June 14 vote on the total budget and could change when absentee Councilman Michael S. McGonagle weighs in.

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