Paris Fire transition to all volunteer going smoothly

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PARIS — Town officials say it’s too early to tell if additional savings will be realized from the Fire Department transition to an on-call, volunteer force. And while the department’s budget is currently in the red, Town Manager Vic Hodgkins projects it will return to the black before the end of the fiscal year.

The transition from a mixed per diem/volunteer Fire Department to an on-call volunteer department officially culminated on Oct. 1. At the end of August, Hodgkins sent lay off letters to the town’s 18 per diem firefighters, as their last day of work was Sept. 30.

The operational change was prompted by a $145,629 cut to the Fire Department’s budget at June town meeting. Budget Committee Chairman Rick Little made the motion, which was seconded by Selectboard Chairman Scott Buffington. In his motion, Little proposed nixing the per diems, going back to an all-volunteer Fire Department and cutting the fire chief’s salary from $40,000 to a $5,000 stipend, plus hourly wages. This left $239,011 for the department’s operating budget for fiscal 2018.

Former Fire Chief Scott Hunter stayed on during the transition and after he left, Deputy Fire Chief Jon Longley was promoted to fire chief and Mark Blaquiere was promoted to assistant chief.

Payroll is a factor for the current $24,176 overage in the Fire Department budget, according to Hodgkins.

“Part of the $239,011 for the fire chief’s pay was based on $5,000 stipend and hourly wages and Chief Hunter, who is paid around $26 an hour, stayed on for several months [after the vote] so that pay really wasn’t necessarily factored into the $239,011,” he said. “The final per diem numbers, depending on the number of weeks they did work, skews it some [along with] other costs.”

Buffington explained the math behind the budget cuts and transition via email.

“The transition money left in the budget [after the vote in June] was intended to allow per diem staff to remain in place for roughly 3 months,” he said. “After reviewing the revised budget enacted at town meeting, we realized there would be approximately $10,000 in additional savings due to reductions in payroll taxes (FICA, social security). Identifying this additional savings allowed us to keep Scott Hunter in place as acting fire chief throughout the transition.”

New paid on-call volunteer firefighters are paid $10.67 and junior firefighters are paid $9, according to Hodgkins. Other volunteer firefighters are paid between $10.67 and $12.55 per hour, depending on experience, training and longevity. Longley is paid $12.63 an hour and averages between 10 and 20 hours a week. As assistant chief, Blaquiere’s position is working firefighter and administrative. He mans the Fire Station from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at a rate of $15 per hour.

Hodgkins expects the Fire Department’s budget to decrease over the next few months.

“Now that we are back to an on-call volunteer department, payroll should start easing, which should make this over-budget number trend down overtime,” he said. “It’s what I expect to happen. I don’t know what the world of reality will be. … There are so many variables. … All I can say is we are doing our very best to make every effort to stay within the $239,011.”

He added that after the holidays – which is about halfway through the fiscal year – he will have a better sense about the Fire Department budget.

“The savings in payroll taxes would be something we would see throughout the entire year … instead we used this money to pay the fire chief though out the transition period. So Vic is correct, this red budget should start balancing through out the year,” Buffington said. “Vic is doing a great job keeping the select board up to date on the budget. I do not recall previous town managers doing this so thoroughly.

“This transition is saving the tax payer $145,000 this year. Next year this savings may be closer to $200,000 due to not having to fund a transition period,” he continued. “All of this, while still providing excellent fire protection.”

Buffington added that keeping Hunter on during the transition allowed Longley “time to focus on recruiting and training existing and new on-call firefighters.”

“Fire Chief Longley and Assistant Chief [Blaquiere] have done a phenomenal job executing this transition plan,” Buffington said.

Longley was hesitant to share a definitive roster number because he is unsure of some of the former per diems’ status with the department. He did note that on average, 11 people are showing up to calls whether they are daytime, evening or late night incidents. There were 14 who responded to a structure fire call in West Paris on Oct. 10, even though it turned out to be a false alarm.

“I have currently asked all on the roster their intentions. I have had few responses,” Longley said, noting it was “a very delicate situation.” “I do have some people that are formerly per diems that are coming out quite faithfully.”

Those who have turned in their gear and pager have not put anything is writing to say that they’re officially done with the department, he added.

“A lot of the gear that was handed in after the per diem program came to its demise … we were able to recirculate … with the exception of boots and gloves,” Longley said. “There is some savings there. Turnout gear is $4,000 [for the] full ensemble.”

Even with the roster number still up in the air, he reported positive things about the new recruits.

“I am still super excited with the new outpouring of people stepping up,” he said. “They’re attending our trainings. … Many of them come after work to ask staff there for suggestions of thing that they can do for opportunities to learn.”

Hodgkins said he sensed there is some fresh energy in the department.

“It would be awesome if we could keep up this energy,” he said.

Hodgkins noted the good news about the transition is the new recruits are going through training. The most recent training – which was available to other area towns – had 21 people participate, which is twice the amount of trainings in the past, Longley said.

“It is very positive. Some of the per diems that were with us at per diem status are with us at on-call status,” Hodgkins said. “Until the dust settles, you have to give it some time to shake itself out a little bit [to figure out the roster].”

As for the town’s per diem firefighter union, it still exists, and is represented by Teamsters Local 340.

“The town of Paris did meet with the per diem bargaining unit in mediation and pretty much everything is currently tabled at this point,” Hodgkins said.

The Teamsters filed three complaints against the town with the Maine Labor Relations Board regarding union negotiations. Hodgkins added there was supposed to be another mediation session this week, but it got canceled at the last moment.

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