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City Council discusses overtime, staffing with Watertown fire chiefs

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WATERTOWN — Fire department officials can expect the city to complete an assessment of staff, equipment and facilities.

But not much else was decided after the Watertown City Council met with Fire Chief Dale C. Herman and Deputy Chief Russell J. Randall for an hour during a budget session Tuesday to talk about such subjects as staffing levels, overtime, false alarms and why the department goes out on so many non-life-threatening calls.

With the city facing turbulent financial times, council members contend that a study is needed to determine the efficiency of the Fire Department and whether the staff level, at 78 members, is appropriate.

Councilwoman Teresa R. Macaluso said she’s concerned about overtime costs.

“We’re not attacking the fire department,” she said. “Just, something’s got to give. Everyone has to give, not just the taxpayers.”

Council members are considering a $39.9 million spending plan that appears will carry a 15.77 percent tax rate increase after they informally agreed to use $500,000 from the fund balance. That would mean a property owner with a home assessed at the average of $107,000 would pay about $123 more in property taxes next year.

Saying he’s heard from residents that the fire department is heavy on staff, Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham contended the department is the logical place to look because it has the largest budget, at more than $8.8 million.

Council members have indicated they want to look at long-term changes in the way the city does business.

The last fire department study was completed in 2002. A new study would cost $30,000 to $60,000 and would not affect the proposed budget.

Deputy Chief Randall told council members he’d welcome a fire department study.

“I don’t feel attacked,” he said. “I understand the fiscal reasons. I really do.”

At any given time, 15 members of the Watertown Fire Department are on duty. Chief Herman said that 15 firefighters must work during each shift to assure safety.

When City Manager Sharon Addison recently asked what would happen if there were 76 fire department members, Chief Herman said that overtime costs would jump to $450,000 from the $217,000 spent during the 2012-13 budget year.

Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191 would have to agree to any staffing changes. The current contract expires in June.

Under the contract, 15 people are scheduled to work on each of the three shifts in case of sickness, vacations and overtime. During summer vacation time, as many as six firefighters may be off on any given day, Chief Herman said.

During the hourlong discussion, council members declined to commit spending $550,000 to replace a 1986 fire engine pump truck. They said it might be better to wait until the department’s assessment is completed.

Earlier in the meeting, Parks and Recreation Department Superintendent Erin E. Gardner said she recommended not opening the Thompson Park pool this summer because it would cost at least $6,000 to make repairs to its bathhouse, or $30,000 to $40,000 to make it handicap accessible. It would save the city about $50,000 in expenses if the pool is not used. The city operates two other pools.

Mrs. Gardner also said she is working with Watertown Family Y officials to take over the North Hamilton, Portage and Academy playgrounds this summer. She had recommended closing them because of low attendance and security issues. The other four playgrounds will reopen this summer,

Council members heard from all the department heads Tuesday night, but made no decisions on the budget. They plan to meet again before it must be adopted at the end of the month.

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