Editor's Note: This version clarifies that North Stonington Fire Chief Charles Steinhart V told members of the Board of Finance a 2nd per diem position would improve response times and play a critical role in improving communication.
NORTH STONINGTON — The hope for funding a second per diem firefighter position at the North Stonington Volunteer Fire Department now lies in the yet unknown guidelines dictating how local governments may use money granted as part of the American Rescue Plan Act.
Members of the Board of Finance have twice opted not to move forward in funding the position through a special appropriation and, given circumstances related to a complicated 2021-22 budget process, have proceeded to craft a proposal that will only support continued use of a single per diem firefighter at the North Stonington Volunteer Fire Department.
If given the opportunity to use the federal recovery funds to cover the $55,000-per-year cost for a three-year period — the measure is one First Selectman Michael Urgo told the board last week may be a realistic possibility — members expressed support to approve funding for the position. That money isn’t yet available, however, and members expressed further concerns with pressing forward before the town has more information.
“I would like to have that money in hand before we spend it,” said Board of Finance Vice Chairman Paul Simonds at a recent meeting. “If a motion was made to encumber $165,000 for the per diem firefighter for the next three years using federal rescue funds, I could be swayed. But salaries don’t belong as an appropriation, and we don’t have that money just yet.”
For finance board members, the questions surrounding the position aren’t ones of need. During workshops earlier this year, nearly all members had expressed support for the position and the understanding that there is a need to fund the position.
The town has experienced both a growing population and an uptick in tourism and out-of-town visitors in recent years, bringing an increase in the frequency of emergency calls to members of the North Stonington Volunteer Fire Department. This has brought an added stress on the department, which has worked to maintain volunteer ranks and struggled to fill daytime shifts when most volunteers would be unavailable.
Fire Chief Charles Steinhart V told members of the board earlier this month that the position would improve response times and play a critical role in improving communication and provide a consistent point of contact at the North Stonington Emergency Services Center.
Board of Finance Chairman Dan Spring said during a recent budget workshop that the department has done well to balance the challenges, but noted that the extra help would be welcome.
“I think there is a consensus that this position would be a value add to the North Stonington Volunteer Fire Company, that isn’t the problem,” Spring said. “We have some tough decisions to make and I’m just not sure we can afford this right now.”
The position was initially included in the Board of Selectmen budget proposal, but Urgo and selectmen Bob Carlson and Nita Kincaid removed the position in an effort to further reduce spending and proposed funding it instead as an appropriation in the current year. The town is seeking to balance the results of revaluation, which saw some properties increase in value by more than 40%, and avoid overtaxing residents one year into a pandemic.
Urgo told finance board members that the appropriation would provide an opportunity to conduct a formal hiring process and fill the position as soon as possible. He indicated that the town would then move forward in seeking use of rescue funds to reimburse costs of the hire this year and to fund the position in the next two fiscal years. Rescue funds may be used on purchases over a three-year period, he indicated.
The effort would buy the town time to plan for funding, taking over costs after three years.
“It is a general consensus at this point that the money will be available for items related to economic recovery and emergency response, and I believe the per diem position will fit that requirement,” Urgo said.
The motions for an appropriation failed on the concern that it would create a cost that the town would be obligated to absorb in the 2022-23 budget and beyond, however, leading members to again seek to revisit the matter.
Spring, Simonds and others said that while they approve of the concept, it is important to also consider the sizable tax increase some could face that would exceed the taxpayers ability to pay.
“If I had the money, I’d approve this. I’d still rather not spend it until I get it,” Simonds said.