Preston finance board supports plan to add paid firefighters, mostly

Preston — The Board of Finance Thursday cut $200,000 from the proposed school budget and $75,000 from the town budget, but mostly left intact a plan to nearly double the fire department budget to add paid firefighters seven days a week.

After budget cuts made Thursday night, residents will discuss at a May 9 public hearing a $3.91 million town government budget, plus $802,423 debt payment and a $12 million school budget. The proposed tax rate is 27.9 mills, a 1.87 mill increase over this year’s tax rate.

Fire Chief Tom Casey told the finance board prior to the vote Thursday that the lack of trained volunteer firefighters and EMTs has reached a critical point, while emergency call volumes increase. The town gradually has added paid full-time and part-time per diem firefighters over the past several years. But the problem persists, especially during weekend and overnight hours, Casey said.

In the 2017-18 fiscal year, there were 103 fire calls in which only Casey responded with his chief’s vehicle was the only Preston fire apparatus at the scene. Another 81 medical calls went unanswered by Preston crews, with dispatchers resorting to mutual aid, meaning longer wait times for patients.

Casey said four times, he was the only Preston responder to medical calls at the Lincoln Park senior housing complex. One patient had to wait more than an hour for an ambulance, because American Ambulance, Ledyard, Voluntown and the two tribal ambulances were not available. A crew from North Stonington responded.

And a new safety rule, “two in and two out,” calls for a minimum of two trained firefighters to enter a hazardous building or other situation, while two others remain outside ready to respond if the two inside need help.

Casey’s proposal called for hiring one full-time firefighter for $57,814 and adding $201,000 for enough per diem part-time hours to have paid staff on duty at all times, nearly doubling the fire department budget to $435,087.

The Board of Finance generally supported the request Thursday but felt the overall 14 percent town government budget increase would not fly with voters. The board cut the fire budget by $32,000 as part of an overall $75,000 town budget cut.

Casey said the $32,000 cut represents about 145 per diem shifts in a year. He said he was disappointed with the cut and will "crunch numbers" to see how it would affect proposed staffing hours.

The fire staffing costs would be offset by a $70,000 contribution by Poquetanuck Ambulance, which already is contributing $40,000 to hire second-shift per diem firefighters and emergency responders.

Poquetanuck Deputy Chief Russ Holland told the finance board that the contribution means the ambulance company no longer can afford to pay for capital improvements and equipment purchases that ambulance revenues had funded, and the town would have to cover those costs.

Holland estimated Poquetanuck Ambulance could increase revenue by about $30,000 with paid staff available to respond to more calls.

Holland also pleaded with town officials to add incentives, such as property tax breaks as other towns do, to help recruit more volunteer firefighters and EMTs. Holland said prospective volunteers have backed off after learning of the hundreds of training hours required with no town incentive.

“The town has to step up to the plate,” Holland said.

“We are not trying to push the volunteers out,” Casey said. “We cannot survive without the volunteer staff. We need to recruit more volunteers.”

c.bessette@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects budget numbers in the second paragraph.

Preston budget schedule

Preston budget schedule:

Budget public hearing: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 9, Preston Plains Middle School.

Budget town meeting: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 23, Preston Plains Middle School.

Budget referendum: Tuesday, June 4, with voting at Preston Plains Middle School.

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