Manchester chief says budget concerns forcing city station closureBy PAUL FEELY
New Hampshire Union Leader
June 27. 2017 10:31PM
MANCHESTER — The city’s fire chief announced Tuesday that he is closing one fire house and reducing staffing at another beginning this Saturday over concerns about fiscal year 2018 funding in the municipal budget.
Fire Chief Dan Goonan said he is closing Station 9 at 575 Calef Road in Ward 9, effective Saturday, July 1. He is also reducing staffing from four to three per shift at Station 2 on South Main Street.
The goal, Goonan said, is to close a nearly $49,000 gap between his original budget request of $19,781,502, and the $19,732,544 his department received when aldermen approved the budget on June 13. That budget also contained no funding for severance pay, which Goonan says ups his department’s deficit to nearly $239,000 when three anticipated retirements on July 31 are included.
“There will be a ‘Station Closed’ sign outside Station 9 this weekend,” said Goonan. “This is happening. I and my people lost a lot of sleep over this, but I don’t want to see layoffs again. This wasn’t a decision that was taken lightly. This was the best option in a really bad situation.”
On Tuesday night, Mayor Ted Gatsas was attempting to schedule a special meeting this Friday with city aldermen to discuss the station closure. As of Tuesday evening, officials were unsure whether a quorum could be achieved.
Goonan said his department faced a similar budget deficit in 2011, when nine firefighters were laid off.
“I hoped we’d never be in this situation again,” said Goonan.
The chief said reductions in personnel per shift should create “floater” positions, available to cover vacations, sick days and decrease overtime.
He said additional steps may be taken if these moves don’t cover the deficit, including station “brown-outs,” with an engine or ladder company temporarily taken out of service and staff re-assigned to training or to fill in personnel gaps in other companies around the city. If “brown-outs” were to occur, Goonan said the first station affected would be Station 5 on Webster Street.
Gatsas said fire officials need to have a conversation with city aldermen about the city’s contingency fund.
“The aldermanic board passed the budget,” said Gatsas. “The money’s in contingency. They need to come in and talk to the board about what money they are going to hold for contingency and severance pay. I don’t support closing stations or brown-outs or anything else.”
Reaction from city aldermen to Goonan’s plan ranged from surprise to support.
“It is very disturbing that drastic steps have to be taken by our fire chief,” said Alderman Bill Barry of Ward 10. “I have the utmost respect for Chief Goonan. Unfortunately, he has been put in a situation where the safety of his department and the safety of our residents have come down to lack of funding. I also agree that it will be devastating for all of our city departments to operate without funding in severance.”
“Tough decisions have to be made by Chief Goonan but I think he’s up to the task of keeping the city safe and keeping his complement of firefighters,” said Alderman-at-Large Joseph Kelly Levasseur. “Thankfully Mayor Gatsas vetoed an unfunded $4 million raise for firefighters that seven irresponsible aldermen voted for, otherwise Chief Goonan’s job would be made much more difficult.”
Goonan said he analyzed response times for crews at fire stations throughout the city, and determined that Station 9’s district could be covered by other apparatus more adequately than others in the city.
“Unfortunately, this will significantly increase response times in some areas of the district, but that is impossible to avoid,” said Goonan.
“I do not want any interruption of fire service to residents on the West Side,” said Barry. “The loss of manpower at Station 2 on South Main Street is unacceptable. I will immediately be asking to have a special meeting of our board to address this situation.”
City officials said they are already hearing from residents in Ward 9 upset with the decision.
“This is very concerning to me,” said Ward 9 Alderman Barbara Shaw. “None of this was brought forward in recent weeks during the budget talks. There were no indications of station closings. I honestly fear for the safety of our area, although I trust the position of the chief that we can be reached easily by other stations.”
“I know the residents on Brent Street are really upset about it,” said state Rep. Victoria Sullivan, R-Manchester, who represents Ward 9. “That’s a lot of territory to carry if they only have one station on South Willow Street. That’s a very big mistake to put people’s lives on the line for a political move, which is what this seems to be.”
Goonan said closing Station 9 and reducing personnel at Station 2 were his only options to reduce the deficit, outside of layoffs.
“I talked with the mayor and aldermen; they expected this,” said Goonan. “I mentioned the possibility of station closings during the budget talks. They know the budget I am working with. There’s nothing I could do to avoid this.”