Monday, June 7, 2010

Is it time to open the East Sandwich fire station?

Vivien Kellerman appeals for opening the East Sandwich fire station via a letter to the editor in today’s Cape Cod Times. See her letter here.

I would like to see the third fire station manned as well, but Vivien’s abridged account of what happened regarding the board of selectmen’s review of this issue needs to be fleshed out in order for people to understand why we are where we are.

Background
In a series of meetings, the board of selectmen listened to the fire chief and deputy fire chief present statistical, logistical and financial information addressing the need for and cost of additional coverage in East Sandwich. No selectman disagreed with their conclusion that our response times could and should be improved to that part of town.

The cost of staffing the East Sandwich fire station raised plenty of questions. To open the station with twelve firefighters, the first year tab would be about $1 million, with about $200,000 of that figure being spent on equipment and fire station improvements.

The selectmen asked for less expensive alternatives, including assigning a two-person team to man an ambulance at the station. This was to address the fact that the most critical need is medical rather than fire services. In spite of the disastrous example of a house fire on Memorial Day, serious structure fires, thanks to smoke alarms and stricter building codes, are an infrequent occurrence.

To complicate the discussion, the selectmen had to consider the effect of our less-than-nominal public safety facilities. Would it be responsible to spend money upgrading a currently uninhabitable fire station (no sleeping/living quarters) when we all know that the current fire and police buildings on Route 6A should be scrapped in favor of a better located and equipped facility?

After much deliberation, the board decided to ask town meeting for $150,000 to update and complete our public safety study (police and fire included) as a first step in a project to build a new public safety complex in a more appropriate location. Additionally, the board requested that the two-person ambulance crew be established at the East Sandwich fire station whenever the two currently operating stations had a full complement of firefighters.

Town Meeting
Prior to the October 27, 2008 special town meeting, a citizens’ petition was filed requesting $960,000 be used to hire, train and staff twelve firefighter positions to open the East Sandwich fire station and to buy a trailer for living accommodations.

This is where Vivien’s description of what happened is a bit too abridged. (To be fair, I know that you can’t submit a tome to Letters to the Editor.)

The warrant article requesting $150,000 for a public safety study would have tapped our stabilization reserve.

At town meeting, a couple of hundred people attended and voted for the study by a margin of 123 to 119. However, expenditures from the stabilization fund requires a two-thirds margin, so the article failed.

There was extensive discussion surrounding the citizens’ petition, including a motion to indefinitely postpone it, which failed. In the end, the amended motion was to spend $710,980 from “free cash” (primarily comprised of land auction proceeds) to hire and train eight firefighters and to buy a trailer for them to live in.

The citizens’ petition passed on a vote of 135 to 95. Vivien’s characterizing 135 “yea” votes as “the rest of the town” (besides herself) voting to open the East Sandwich fire station is simply inaccurate. Characterizing it as a referendum is also misleading as that implies it was a ballot question.

The Aftermath
The board of selectmen was handed a decision by 135 voters to hire eight firefighters with zero funding to keep them employed beyond June 30, 2009. If the selectmen had acted on this ill-advised, emotionally-charged decision, the eight new firefighters would not even have completed their training at the fire academy before they would have been laid off.

I started this post by saying that I agree with Vivien that we should man the East Sandwich fire station. That was the point of the selectmen’s compromise to assign an ambulance crew there providing medical services with a reduced response time.

In the several months after we requested an East Sandwich ambulance crew on days when both the Downtown and Forestdale stations were fully staffed, we actually had that ambulance crew in place on exactly two shifts.

Reread that last sentence. Over an extended period of time, the two operating stations were fully staffed at the beginning of their shifts only two times. That raises an entirely different issue that needs to be addressed, whether the reason for it is understaffing, excessive absenteeism, or some other deficiency.

Suggestions for Funding
So how do you staff the East Sandwich fire station and fund it in a sustainable way? Here are some possibilities:

- Raise taxes. An override for this purpose would provide a steady stream of revenue to sustain the operation. We did this when we took the Forestdale station from part-time to full-time. What is the likelihood of an override passing?

- Raise fees. The transfer station is subsidized to the tune of about $750,000. Roughly doubling the $110 sticker fee would cover the subsidy and free the funds to hire eight firefighters. This is what is commonly called a “backdoor” override. No vote required (except for a vote of the board of selectmen).

- Reduce the local contribution to the schools. This would be met with stiff opposition, no doubt. It pits the school department against the fire department. That’s uncomfortable, but there’s a reason to consider this option. According to the Massachusetts Department of Primary and Secondary School Education, the Town of Sandwich’s local contribution to the school department has risen from $2.2 million above the state’s minimum required local contribution in fiscal year 2006 (the year the $2.6 million override went into effect) to $6.7 million in the current fiscal year ending June 30, 2010. One might wonder why this margin has grown by $4.5 million in four years and why $750,000 of this can’t be tapped for public safety. See the DPSSE’s chart here. See the DPSSE's definition of Foundation Budget here. (Foundation Budget equals the mandated local contribution plus Chapter 70 aid.)

- Restore state aid. The Town of Sandwich has lost more than $1 million in local aid from the state just this year. If we use restored state aid for this purpose, it would more than pay for the operating costs. That will require our state representative and senator to fight for raising the priority of local aid for all towns and cities.

Feel free to add your own suggestions for funding the East Sandwich fire station, or argue that it’s not necessary.

15 comments:

  1. Before jumping on the cut the schools to hire firefighters bandwagon, it might be good to consider a couple of things:

    1. What are all of the things that go into the Net School Spending calculation?

    I believe health insurance is included. What has been the percent increase in that cost over the past several years? Sandwich pays 75% of the health insurance costsfor their employees. Maybe it is time to look at that...

    Does this number include charter school sending tuition and school choice and upper cape tech? If so, it is important to look at how those numbers have changed over the years.

    2. What is the projected budget deficit for FY11? Are we really going to be in a position to shift money from one core department to another?

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  2. Two inputs:
    1. Why hasn’t the Town manager and the Selectmen regularly discussed the fire house staffing issue you highlight here? Seems like the Downtown and Forestdale stations have chronic staffing issues – why has nobody addressed, whether as your write, “the reason for it is understaffing, excessive absenteeism, or some other deficiency?”
    2. Net school spending is a state imposed “floor.” It’s a law that establishes the very least amount a city or town can spend on their schools. That some would choose to view net school spending as a target for resource allocation is worrisome. Perhaps the schools are over resourced, perhaps not. I am not sure what the appropriate measuring stick might be, but a state mandated minimum is NOT the right benchmark.

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  3. I added a link to the state's definition of foundation budget in the post.

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  4. I don't want to make this a school-bashing post, but before we go chasing down the Net School Spending rabbit hole again, I would like to see a comparison of how the various components of NSS have changed over the past 10 years.

    There have been several changes in the way NSS is calculated in Sandwich over the past several years. Comparing 2009 NSS with 2004 NSS is like comparing Apples and giraffes.

    2-3 years ago there was an agreement to calculate certain pieces of NSS with a standardized state formula (which is a good thing), but prior to that there were few standard calculations and it is more than a little likely that these costs were NOT properly charged --- which would certainly produce an inflated growth figure.

    There are other components of NSS which are actual charges against the Schools -- it would be very interesting to see what the schools are being charged for now -- versus what they were being charged for in 2005.

    Again, I would be willing to bet that the schools are charged for a lot more services now than they were then. I'm NOT saying they should not be charged -- I'm only saying that if the method of calculation has changed, the rate of growth will be completely bogus.

    All that being said -- I can not imagine how understaffing was not a major complication to last week's fire. Two men responding, both being seriously injured, and then waiting 15 minutes for an ambulance. That is not right.

    But, as long as 85% of people ignore everything that goes on in town (until they are very personally affected), we will continue to walk in circles talking to ourselves.

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  5. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in the McDuffy case that Massachusetts had an
    “enforceable duty” to provide education for children regardless of wealth or school
    district. To comply with the McDuffy ruling, the legislature enacted the 1993 Education ReformAct. The goal was to make sure that there were funds available and spent to ensure that each and every Massachusetts school student received an “adequate” education – the goal of sufficient educational expenditures for every student, defined as the “Foundation Budget.”
    Although this ambition was the subject of expert concerns over whether it was sufficient
    for an “adequate” education, given modern learning needs and philosophies, it became
    the financial aim for every school district and was to be achieved through a combination
    of available local funds and state aid granted to reach the required minimum (the
    “foundation”).
    In this way, every one of Massachusetts’ 351 school districts would, through a phased-in program completed by 2001, be able to spend at least the minimum required to educate its students. School districts could spend more than the minimum required, but at least everyone would be at foundation.

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  6. Here’s an idea: Close the transfer station and stop underwriting the Sandwich Hollows land purchase debt payments, total saved roughly $1,000,000.
    Open the East Sandwich fire station with twelve firefighters.
    The first year tab of about $1 million, with about $200,000 of that figure being spent on equipment and fire station improvements gets paid for with the above savings.
    In year 2, use $800,000 of the savings to run the East Sandwich fire station with twelve firefighters. Use the other $200,000 to begin to address the town’s building repair and upkeep needs.

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  7. The last post states that we should close the refuse station and sell the golf course. Both would hurt people in the wallet at some point. Why don't you get something on the ballot that is binding for a debt exclusion. I am sure you could round up some people to vote for it. The town has a terrible record with voting and only a few will be needed. Why don't we just outsource the school system?

    Frugal Fannie

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  8. Good evening Mr. Hunt

    It is time for the town of Sandwich to bite the bullet and build a combination central police ,fire town hall complex on the Agilant property. Then reduce numbers of those in the fire and police at the present locations and supply the new centralized departments with enough men and women to protect our town.
    If that means a general overide then go for it.

    Carl Johansen
    A concerned citizen in the wonderful town of Sandwich

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  9. I think a public safety study should precede opening the East Sandwich Station or any “central station” construction (I thought the Selectmen had agreed to undertake such a study.)
    Lets get a thorough professional review of population trends, response routes, etc. and locate our station(s) where it would be most effective AND lets have an objective third party review the fire house staffing issue Randy highlighted when he wrote – “is understaffing, excessive absenteeism, or some other deficiency? AND, lets do it NOW.

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  10. Simple, stop all the over time pay and hire more firefighters! It's soooo much cheaper people! Geeze why isn't that popular with the current fireman, it ruins their total income to support their families on Cape Cod. Sandwich Fire and Police need to stop pointing all the blame on the schools, their overtime is killing our town budgets too! Pick your poison, overtime or more firefighters and Policemen? It is such a disgrace your all in the swamp buildings still!

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  11. The Selectmans meeting dated 12/10/09 Selectman Jim Pierce said, and I quote, "Safety...safety....safety..." Really? what has changed in the last six months BEFORE this Ridge Club fire? What has changed AFTER the Ridge Club fire? I'll give you a hint, the answer is the same.

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  12. I have tried to email Susko, Cahill, and Killion. I did not get any response. If they support something, then I am against it.

    Braless 32A

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  13. But hey! Let us build a SECOND library! Did it ever occur to the BOS to simply say no last night? gawd.......

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  14. You know staffing the station would be the best idea but...... As most know the station was never manned. It was a "Call" station. But for some reason the town decided to get rid of its call firefighter force back in 2005. Now this may not be a total solution to your problem but I guarantee it would help the temporary solution would be as follows:

    Reinstate the call firefighter force! at least you would be getting some sort of service. There a plenty of young men and women that are looking to get their foot into the fire service by ways of volunteer and call force positions. Take a look at your West Barnstable neighbors for instance they run about 90 something percent of their firefighter are call/volunteer.

    Heres a fun fact did you know that there are Sandwich residents serving on the West Barnstable Fire Dept VOLUNTEERING.



    Sincerly,
    A guy who understands the current horrible situations that public safety is feeling in most communities like Sandwich.

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  15. No One Listens to me.......July 5, 2011 at 10:41 AM

    I re-read this thread. I find it interesting that the only solution seems to be to build a new public safety building at the Agilant property (at least as far at the BOS is concerned). I challange the location as not being the best (by far).

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