NORTH ATTLEBORO — Public safety departments made their case in support of a Proposition 2 1/2 override Thursday, not with dire forecasts or threats of cuts to come if they don’t see the influx of cash, but with pleas to restore what’s already been stripped from their budgets.
If more cuts come, they said during a three-hour meeting before selectmen, they wouldn’t know how to absorb them.
The meeting was the first of three before selectmen are expected to come up with a dollar amount for a tax increase put to vote this April.
For his department, Police Chief John Reilly asked the board to restore eight officers at an estimated $750,000.
That would bring the department back up to 2008 levels when there were 48 staffers on board. Today the department has 40.
Reilly called the low number troublesome on many counts.
He said the reduction in manpower has led to increased response times.
In 2008, with 35 patrol officers in the department, the average response time was one minute and nine seconds.
In 2013 he hit a low of 28 patrol officers and saw response times rise to just under two minutes.
Last year with 29 patrol officers, response times were one minute and 45 seconds.
And Reilly said when staff take vacation or sick time, the problem is only compounded. At some points over the last year he was only able to deploy three patrol cars per shift when the lowest number should really be four.
“It’s unreasonable,” he said. “It’s dangerous. It takes time to get from point A to point B and it’s common for us to have two or three incidents at a time.”
The U.S. Justice Department recommends a staff of 55 for a town the size of North Attleboro, but Reilly said he doesn’t see that realistic for the town’s finances. Instead, he’d just be happy to get back to his original 48.
And he said if the town moves forward with another round of cuts instead, he wouldn’t know where to make them. His department has seen a deficit every year since 2011, leaving his budget stripped when it comes to supplies, equipment repair, travel and training.
In 2009 police forewent pay raises when the town was in trouble, Reilly said, and many times they are volunteering themselves for trainings, events and outreach.
“Our officers and our people, they deserve better,” he said.
Fire Chief Michael Brousseau is also looking for eight more personnel.
Brousseau said he has a minimum of 11 firefighters and paramedics on duty at one time. But the National Fire Protection Association says during a standard building fire, 17 personnel should be on scene within the first eight minutes of the alarm.
That leaves Brousseau leaning on other communities for mutual aid more than he would like.
The Association also advises a minimum of four personnel assigned to each apparatus. North Attleboro most days only has two or three. And because there’s so few staff, Brousseau said, at the Kelley Boulevard station three firefighters are assigned to man both the ambulance and fire engine.
That means if they’re dispatched to a rescue call, the station and fire engine are going unmanned.
“We’re trying to cover five or six trucks with only enough people to cover four,” Brousseau said.
But Brousseau knocked down previous proposals to close the Kelley Boulevard station saying it serves an area of town that is further away and harder to get to. If the station closed, he said, response times to that area would be beyond the recommended four minutes.
He also said his department is doing more with less.
The fire department shrunk from 60 members in 2009 to 55 last year, while seeing 400 more emergency calls.
In the first 10 days of this year alone, they’ve averaged 16 a day.
And, most days his staff volunteer to attend training without pay because the department can’t afford it.
“That’s not right,” Brousseau said.
He asked selectmen to consider another eight staffers and other increases for building and apparatus maintenance for a total of $800,000.
Public Works Director Mark Hollowell said since 2011 he’s lost 14 percent of his labor force — first by employee cuts and then by a reduction in hours in 2012.
Meanwhile, work for the department has increased as requests for service from other departments come flooding in amidst their own budget shortfalls. Hollowell said it makes sense for other departments to rely on public works for service and equipment instead of outsourcing to expensive companies, but said his department simply doesn’t have the manpower to keep up.
“It just thins us out more and more,” he said.
A lot of the preventative maintenance gets kicked down the road due to a lack of funding and time, Hollowell said, but only creates trouble later when minor issues suddenly become expensive emergency repairs.
He asked the board for $168,000 to restore two positions to full-time and bring back a full work-week or increase overtime allowance, and $130,000 for additional expenses and supplies.
The health department said they need a default human services coordinator to manage Lenore’s Pantry and other social services the town provides. Currently Town Nurse Anne Marie Fleming takes up that job, but Health Agent Bob Davis said it’s at a rate that is unsustainable and pulls Fleming from other areas where she is needed.
Fleming said two-thirds of her time is spent dealing with households in need, serving about 90 people a month from the pantry. In doing so, she works up to 60 hours a week completing the other duties of town nurse, but only gets paid for 37.
Fleming said hiring a human services coordinator to manage the pantry and other resources would free her up to focus on outreach programs on current public health dangers like the opioid epidemic or Lyme disease that the town is lacking.
The department also asked for increased hours for part-time workers to keep up with inspections and other duties. Their ask came in at $168,000.
Russell Wheeler said if the building department sees cuts next year, he’s already talked with his department about what’s to come: They’ll have to take whole weeks off without pay to make up for the loss.
His department, which conducts inspections, licensing and permits for buildings, is already reduced to a partial work week. But selectmen said the building department is a crucial part of the economic development the town wants to see: Without inspections, there is no new business.
Wheeler estimated it would take about $20,000 to bring the department back up to a full work week.
And Animal Control Officer Kristina O’Keefe also asked for $20,000 to increase part-time employee hours and order uniforms for the department. She said many times residents have a hard time distinguishing animal control employees when they are out on calls. The $20,000 also includes an increase in equipment and supplies.
Department meetings before the board will continue through the rest of the month, with departments in the education and human services sector presenting their budgets next week. The board of selectmen meets at 6 p.m. in the lower level of Town Hall.