By Doug Ireland direland@eagletribune
---- — SALEM — Just when police and fire officials thought selectmen were done cutting their proposed budgets, they found out otherwise.
Town Manager Keith Hickey learned late last week that higher-than-anticipated health insurance costs meant selectmen would have to slash approximately $282,000 from a $37 million budget they approved a month ago. So, the board resumed its cuts Monday night, targeting two of the town’s largest departments.
Now, leaders of the police and fire departments are each grappling with $35,000 reductions in their budgets. That comes on top of thousands of dollars already sliced from the bottom line during the Board of Selectmen’s month-long budget review.
“It’s a struggle,” fire Chief Kevin Breen said. “So we will need to provide service in the best way we can.”
But would mean not fully staffing 15-member firefighters shifts, reducing public safety, he said.
For 12 weeks this year, budget cuts forced the department to go without a full complement of firefighters, often managing with only 13 on a shift, Breen said.
The $35,000 cuts affect the two departments’ overtime and replacement pay budgets. Replacement pay is money paid to an employee who fills in for someone else.
For Deputy police Chief Shawn Patten, the latest cuts to the police budget will have a significant impact on staffing. But the department will move forward, continuing to serve the public in the best way it can, he said.
“It’s something we will have to manage and adjust,” he said. “We’ll make sure the citizens of Salem get the (protection) they need.”
For both departments, it all comes down to numbers.
“The math is really simple,” Patten said. “For us, that $35,000 on average represents 117 shifts.”
That’s in addition to those affected by an earlier $50,000 reduction, he said.
Both men are frustrated but ready to cope with the budget cuts, which were disheartening but not a surprise after they heard selectmen had to slash the proposed town budget even further.
When a community needs to cut spending, it often looks at its biggest departments first — the police, fire and public works departments, Patten said.
“You have to expect it, if cuts are going to be made,” he said.
The police and fire departments were the first targeted by Selectman Stephen Campbell on Monday night, citing their rising costs after new employee contracts recently were ratified.
“These two departments we really didn’t cut and they had significant increases in personnel costs,” he said.
The public works department already lost two positions and didn’t deserve further cuts, Campbell said.
Campbell began the budget cutting by proposing a $50,000 reduction in the fire department budget, but it was rejected, 4-1.
He then asked to eliminate $25,000 from both the fire and police department budgets. The $25,000 cuts were approved, then reluctantly increased to $35,000 by Selectman Patrick Hargreaves after the board struggled to reduce the budget further.
The cuts just when the Budget Committee had nearly completed its review before sending the budget to voters. Residents will vote on the final spending plan in March.
Hickey said the town learned it would be hit with an 18 percent rise in health insurance costs after expecting an increase of only about 10 percent. He is expects to learn today if that increase will be reduced to 14 or 15 percent.