Fire Chief on station closure: After budgetary cards were dealt, ‘I had no other options’

A final decision is expected after the Mayor and Board of Aldermen meet Friday.

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MANCHESTER, NHMaking the call to close Station 9 was not an impulsive one. Chief Dan Goonan says once it was clear to him that he had to close a $238,000 gap in his budget before the new budget season began July 1, he looked at his options.

“The only thing I really have to work with is overtime. The rest of the budget is fixed,” says Goonan.

Although an emergency meeting planned for June 30 of the Mayor and Board of Aldermen may result in a financial resolution and stop the proposed station closure, Goonan explained that his decision was something he discussed with the mayor prior to writing the letter. In fact, it was something he brought before the board repeatedly during budget meetings over the last several months.

⇒ Related story: Fire Chief says budget squeeze may force closure of Station 9

“I asked the city clerk for transcripts of the meetings, just to make sure I wasn’t crazy. I was pretty clear with the mayor and board about what actions I’d have to take, and why,” Goonan says. “I promised I’d do my best to avoid layoffs, but I didn’t say there wouldn’t be cutbacks.”

The summer months are his window of opportunity, a time when the department can spend $250-300,000 in overtime to cover vacations.

Fire Chief Dan Goonan

“This wasn’t something I decided on a whim. I’ve been thinking about it for weeks, and I knew I was doomed unless I could make some immediate adjustments,” Goonan says. “I’ve been assistant chief and chief for nine years; I know what has to be done. I’m contractually obligated to assign manpower monthly, and if I don’t, I lose it for the month and give away that potential savings.”

Closing Station 9 and reducing staff at Station 2 would allow him to provide coverage for upcoming vacations without dipping too deep into overtime.

Other than having his budget request reduced by $48,000, the other source of shortfall is the anticipated severance payout of $138,414. Departments across the city have to absorb severance expenses for the first time in FY 2018.

“Some have accused me of grandstanding, but it’s just a reality of what I’ve been dealt as a budgetary card, and so I made a decision that had to be made,” says Goonan.

Prior to his decision he said he even spoke directly with Finance Director Bill Sanders.

“I asked him if the Board of Aldermen really had the capacity to ‘have my back,’ and he told me there’s not enough in the contingency fund because everyone is going to be coming at it for severance,” Goonan said.

Another bite out of his budget is a $51,000 payment required by December for a warranty on a citywide radio program, also utilized by police and health department personnel.

“That was a good deal negotiated by Mayor Gatsas, which costs us $150,000 for 10 years with a radio replacement guarantee – but you have to pay the bill,” Goonan says.

And on top of all of that, for the past year the department has had to adjust itself to operating Safe Station, one of our city’s primary action steps toward easing the burden of the opioid epidemic.

“We’re nearing 2,000 people coming through Safe Station – that takes up about half of my job now. Safe Station will soon be a national model. We just learned the National Institute on Drug Abuse is coming in to study Safe Station. They want to prove it’s saving lives, and we’ve gotten accolades from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. All these people are coming in to see the great things Manchester is doing, above and beyond the call of duty, and yet you find yourself fighting petty battles over budgets,” Goonan says.

Goonan also addressed another question that has arisen from his decision to close Station 9: When he first took on the job of chief, there was discussion about whether it might make sense to permanently shutter Station 9, one of the city’s oldest fire stations, which is in disrepair. Mayor Gatsas at that time had floated the idea of consolidating Stations 9 and 3 into one new station, to be built in the area of Brown Avenue. This would make more sense demographically, and reduce the number of staff needed and eliminate the cost of repairing Station 9.

But despite some Facebook chatter about Goonan’s motives, he says that proposal has nothing to do with the current budget constraints that have forced his hand. It was simply a blueprint for a way to save money and be more efficient with city resources.

Goonan says he also has contingency plans in place to “brown out” additional stations if needed to make sure there’s enough left in the 2018 budget next spring, should there be more retirements announced.

The fire department isn’t the only city department with contingency plans, says Goonan. From the police department to smaller departments, all are equally at-risk of having to lay off to make budget ends meet.

“There are no politics involved in my decision to close Station 9 this week. I’m just trying to deal with a $238,000 budget shortfall. It’s not something I ever thought I’d have to do,” Goonan said. “I’m a taxpayer here. I understand what’s going on. I’ve spent a lot of sleepless nights thinking about how to make sure I take care of what I have to take care of. But I’ll tell you, if the mayor and alderman have a big meeting on Friday and tell me they’ve solved the money problems, I’d have to ask them why did it have to come to this? Why couldn’t we have dealt with this before I had to wrestle with such a decision?”

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