MANCHESTER, NH – Aldermen voted Thursday to supplement the Fire Department’s budget with enough money to cover three upcoming retirements, thereby averting temporary closure of Station 9.
It is a stop-gap measure that won’t solve the Fire Department’s budget shortfall in the long-term. And as several aldermen pointed out, Goonan is the first of what will likely be a parade of department heads coming before the board, because they are unable to cover their expenses under the recently approved fiscal 2018 budget.
The vote Thursday was unanimous, as the board agreed to transfer about $138,000 from contingency into the Fire Department budget to keep Station 9 open.
Chief Goonan notified the board earlier in the week by letter that, due to underfunding his budget request, he had no alternative but to close Station 9. He made the move to avoid the probability of layoffs later in the year.
“I made a decision based on what I told you previously, and it was the best move I could make through careful analysis and several sleepless nights,” Goonan said. “I was quite clear. I don’t know why anyone is surprised; I did what I said I was going to do.”
Mayor Gatsas told the board at the top of the meeting that he hoped they would vote to allocate money from the contingency fund to avoid closing Station 9.
From there, several aldermen weighed in – Joseph Levasseur said he did not support giving more money to Goonan, and that he felt the board was “jumping the gun” by considering the measure before the new budget cycle even begins on July 1.
“We have a thin amount of money,” Levasseur said. “I understand the police will need a lot of money, and a lot of other departments in the city –21 or 22 of them – will need money. “We’re jumping the gun. I don’t see why we couldn’t wait until the July 18th meeting, or even August, and see where the budget is.”
He said he trusted Goonan wouldn’t recommend anything that would threaten the safety of the city. Goonan told Levasseur that by closing Station 9 it would definitely create a safety issue by increasing response times to certain parts of the city.
“I can guarantee you it’s a safety issue, if you were living in the South End and, instead of getting there in four minutes we are getting there in 10,” Goonan said. “I’m losing sleep over this.”
Alderman Ron Ludwig used the word “baloney” to describe the situation.
“This is baloney. Department heads need money to manage effectively, they can’t manage by the seat of the their pants on the fly. Before we start July 1, Chief Goonan knows he’s in trouble. Where is this going to end? Let’s put the amount of money in the budget that’s necessary for department heads to run their departments in the first place,” Ludwig said, garnering applause from several in the audience.
Alderman-at-large Daniel O’Neill said the larger question is not how the city will keep Station 9 open, but why it’s struggling to maintain a status-quo budget at a time of economic boom.
“The bigger question is what the heck is going on in this city?” O’Neil said.
He noted that other cities with spending caps, like Dover and Nashua, aren’t talking about closing fire stations. “This is an issue for the elected officials to answer, and not keep putting it on the department heads,” O’Neil said. “I’m not sure what the answer is, but we have to give our department heads the money they need to operate. There’s no fat in city government. Police and fire are providing direct services, but we need to give them the resources to do that.”
But it was Alderman Tony Sapienza who came up with what would ultimately be the solution, for now.
He first acknowledged the city’s severance problem, and then introduced an alternative to syphoning money from the contingency fund: Transfer $250,000 from an unallocated severance fund line-item in the 2017 budget to help cover the shortfall.
“Mr. Sanders has assured me that money is there,” Sapienza said.
That segue gave Finance Director William Sanders a chance to explain to the board that based on there having been only two June retirements, money he’d squirreled away into reserve for 2017 retirements would be available at the close of the 2017 fiscal year, which is June 30.
Aldermen voted in favor of moving the $250,000 from the severance surplus to the severance reserve account.