New Contract and Firefighters On Ballot
By STEPHEN BEALE
The future of the Fire Department will be shaped by the outcome of the town election next Tuesday.
On the ballot are a new contract for firefighters, a proposal for two new ones, and plan to save up for the purchase of a ladder truck and other equipment. Other articles include the $18.7 million operating budget for all town departments, a $2.5 million proposal for a municipal water system in the parks area, and a $2 million bond to purchase land.
The ballot also has candidates for several town offices. Only one seat on the board of selectmen is up for re-election. Phil D’Avanza is an uncontested candidate for that seat. Other candidates are running for town clerk, town moderator, supervisor of the checklist, budget committee, planning board, zoning board, library of trustees, and other positions.
If the operating budget and all the other articles pass, the new estimated town tax rate would be $9.16 per $1,000 in assessed property value, an increase of 35 cents. At the new rate, a $200,000 home would have $1,832 in taxes due to the town.
Much of the attention this year seems is on the articles for the Fire Department. Article 14 would grant firefighters a new contract. The last one expired in December 2005. Since then, salaries and benefits have been frozen. The new contract would give them the same insurance benefits as all other town employees as well as increase their salaries.
Under the old contract, an entry-level firefighter would earn $13.32 an hour with an annual salary of $31,168. Now a firefighter would start out at $16 an hour, earning $34,944 a year. The maximum hourly wage has gone from $19.81 an hour to $23.61, with a new salary of $51,573, according to selectman Scott Gross.
That will cost taxpayers $73,078, or 3 cents on the tax rate in 2008. But the actual cost to taxpayers would be less than that because the new contract would save them $37,640 from the operating budget. The reduction is due to the fact that the town will be paying less in overtime wages under the new contract.
Gross said the higher wages and salaries are critical to keeping and hiring new firefighters in Goffstown. He said the department has been unable to fill two longstanding vacancies because prospective candidates are able to earn more in other communities like Bedford and Merrimack.
Firefighters will not be the highest paid in the area after the contract passes, but Gross said they would not be at the bottom of the range either. “The salaries that we have negotiated are competitive,” Gross said. “We know that we cannot be the highest payer nor do we choose to be the lowest payer.”
Lt. Bill Connor, president of the local 3420 of the International Firefighters Association, said the contract also resolved several administrative issues between the town and the union and boosted the wages for lieutenants, since they have more responsibilities than regular firefighters.
A major benefit for the town will be an expansion to seven-day fire coverage, Gross said. Now, the town staffs two stations with six to eight firefighters Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call firefighters and full-time personnel fill in on the weekends.
The contract would make the full-time schedule seven days a week, with the same hours. The department would still depend upon call firefighters for nighttime emergencies and possibly some of its daytime shifts, according to Gross.
How many full-time firefighters would be on duty during the day depends on whether voters approve Article 15, which asks them for $72,274. That would be combined with $34,324 in federal funds to hire two new firefighters.
The grant, known as Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, would share part of the cost over a period of five years. In 2008 the tax impact would be 3 cents.
The town is hoping that an incremental approach to expanding the Fire Department will be welcomed by voters. Past attempts to grow it by leaps and bounds have failed at the polls. Several years ago, voters tossed out a plan for hiring 18 firefighters. A year ago, they said no to 10.
Goffstown has 10 full-time firefighters for a population of about 18,000 people while Bedford has 24 for a community that is over 20,000, according to Gross. He said a larger force is critical to being able to take several calls—such as a fire and a medical emergency—at once. “We are such a large community, we can’t afford to not be able to handle multiple calls at the same time,” Gross said.
Under the new contract, five firefighters would be on duty, according to Connor. Gross said the federal grant would bring that up to six or possibly seven.
One of the largest articles is a bond at $2,537,000 for the design and construction of a municipal water system for the Lynchville and Danis parks area. Article 12 will have no impact on the tax rate, since the bond will be paid back by fees from the residents who are tapping into the new system. About 235 homeowners are affected, according to Gross.
Article 11 has a second, $2 million bond which would allow the town to purchase a 27-acre parcel on Center Street for recreational fields and possible construction of a town or school building in the future. The bond also has money for conservation easements and other land purchases still in the process of being negotiated.
The article does not affect the tax rate in 2008, but it would add 19 cents in 2009and decrease in succeeding years, according to Gross.
Guy Caron, the chairman of the Goffstown Residents Association, supports the land and municipal water bonds and as well as the contract and federal grant for the Fire Department. “I support the SAFER grant,” Caron said. “Personally, I think we need to take advantage of it while we can.”
But Caron is drawing the line at a request to put $420,000 into a municipal savings fund for the purchase of an aerial fire truck in 2010, a tanker pumper in 2011, and a pumper in 2012. This article accounts for 33 cents on the town tax rate, according to Gross.
Caron said taxpayers needed a break. “I’ve got to say no somewhere.”
Reproduced by the Goffstown