Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – It was the town's fire department to the rescue during last night's final budget workshop, offering to forego $130,000 in cost of living raises for fiscal year 2011 to boost the town's budget shortfall and maintain public safety.
At the top of the meeting, Chief Financial Officer Frank Childs showed the council a highlighted version of the budget figures, explaining that due to some lagging revenues, the budget was actually over the tax cap by $37,011 rather than coming in below.
“There are still some things that will affect the bottom line, like cycled inspections may pick up, current use and abatements, but this reflects what isn't happening out there,” Childs said. “Unfortunately, it is what it is.”
And with that, Fire Chief George Klauber took the microphone, and told the council that before he went over the $10 million Emergency Management budget, Derry Professional Firefighters President Michael Willinsky wanted to address the board.
“Our members are part of this community, we are your neighbors, our kids are in then school systems, we participate in your church services. We understand the financial situation the town faces,” Willinsky said. “We're here tonight to offer to work on an agreement to forego our cost of living raise for the next year period. With that money, we can maintain the daily staffing levels and keep station open.”
Willinsky was referring to a situation that arose earlier in the year that forced Klauber to reduce daily staffing in an effort to keep overtime costs down, which were running higher than projected. Klauber said at the time that, if slashing overtime was not enough to hold the line, the next consideration might be to close one of the town's four fire stations during off hours.
Willinsky said being involved in the budget process beginning last fall helped the union to prepare for whatever concessions it might want or need to make.
“We like to keep our fingers on the pulse of what's going on throughout the year, to make sure our people are protected,” Willinsky said.
The council, visibly surprised, went into non-public session with Human Resources Director Larry Budreau briefly to understand what the give back would mean to the budget figures.
“To me, it speaks volumes to the quality of the community we live in,” said Council Chair Brad Benson, once the workshop reconvened. “This is an extremely positive step the unions have taken to move us forward.”
Otherwise, the process of combing through the Emergency Management budget was without surprises. Council members questioned some of the budget increases, but found that most of them were due to vital equipment purchases or technological upgrades, which are unavoidable.
Klauber told the council that his budget came in at 1.8 percent below last year's budget, and that it reflected no new hires.
Following the meeting, Klauber praised his men for taking the initiative with the council – noting that past council/union relationships have not always been easy.
“I'm proud of them. Their concerns are my concerns. If we couldn't get relief, the potential for station closure was great. With what the town council accepted, and due to the union's generous offer, it allows us to move forward. I'd like to see this kind of relationship continue between labor and management,” Klauber said.
“It's not just about money – it's about having a working relationship. The union came to me in the fall – I don't know how often something like that happens, where a union will offer something like that, without being asked. But it truly reflects on the caliber of our firefighters, and their commitment to this community.”
A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for May 6 with a final review on May 11. Once all the flagged items are reviewed, the final budget should be ready for adoption by the council May 18.