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Fire district moves to step and grade salary system

February 10, 2011
TILTON — Monday's budget hearing for the Tilton-Northfield Fire District was sparsely attended, but a few expenses in the $1.4 million operating expenses generated some lively discussions, including employees wages, overtime expenses and insurances.

The figures amount to a $25,000 increase over 2010.

Tom Gallant, chairman of the Fire Commission, explained no yearlong pay increases were given to department employees but, after a lengthy study in conjunction with the Local Government Center, the commission implemented a step and grade system at the start of 2011 that will see gradual pay increases in the coming year.

"Every person on the payroll is now on various levels in categories, along with their various years of service. Increases will come only on the anniversary of their employment," said Gallant.

For 2011 they will receive a 2.5 percent increase on that anniversary date, but the commission is not done with its study and future adjustments to this system will most likely be made for the years ahead.

Lisa Swancott of the Northfield Budget Committee said she did not support step increase, because no matter how an employees performance, they would still receive a pay increase. Gallant admitted that was one "side effect" of the step and grade system but reiterated the commission had spent countless hours working to develop a level playing field within the department.

"Everybody is plugged in at two and a half percent to get us into the year and up and running but from there the rest is still up in the air … there is no concrete number for the future," Gallant said.

Overall total wages for the department are actually down this year due in part to the departure of former chief Stephen Carrier, among other factors, he said.

Leif Martinson, also of the Northfield Budget Committee, opposed automatic raises, saying he does not get one in his job. He said he wanted to see Chief Brad Ober having greater input as to whether or not a raise was justifiable for employees. Gallant told Martinson that was a point well taken and the commission would continue to develop the system for 2012 and beyond.

Swancott and several other Northfield residents said they wanted to see greater use of call fire fighters in order to lessen those costs. Chief Brad Ober said call members are used whenever possible, but not for shift coverage within the 24-hour daily operations of the department. Three people cover each shift and overtime for their coverage is estimated to be a little over $4,000 for instances of training, personal time off, sick days, vacation and other occasional absences.

Commissioner Paul Auger said many of the call firefighters are not fully qualified or simply unable to cover a shift and therefore overtime is necessary to the staffing of the station.

Commissioner Pat Clark said that after a busy year in 2010, examining wages and benefits and searching for a new chief, the commission next hopes to look at the call firefighter roster and "beef it up" through training and membership in the months ahead.

Retirement was up $90,000 but the commission explained that figure is mandated by the state and cannot be altered. Insurances increased by approximately $30,000 after the commissioner consulted with LGC and the Department of Revenue Administration. Gallant said the intentions of the board were to move to an insurance plan on par with that of town employees in Northfield and Tilton.

"If it's good enough for the DPW workers then it's good enough for our station," Gallant said.

He said the department had been losing full-time employees who needed better insurance coverage, which could be found at other fire departments around the state. The new policy, which took effect Jan. 1, is now similar to that held by the two towns except for the deductible.

Municipal employees have no deductible but TNFD staff will have a 10-percent deductible and the district will reimburse them. Commissioners were given a "worst case" scenario for those deductibles as $6,500, which they are prepared to pay if necessary. Any of that money that is unexpended could then be rolled over to the next fiscal year by creating a revolving fund or returning the money to the General Fund.

Former commissioner Kevin Waldron said paying deductibles was "unpalatable" and asked if other fire departments paid deductibles for their employees. Ober said policies change within departments, making it hard to say for certain, but after examining insurances available, this was a competitive package. Clark said the commission did a "responsible job" in looking at the options.

"We already have the money for the deductibles and got a better plan this way," he said.

Gallant wrapped up discussions saying the district currently has no loans or leases and the only major equipment expense for 2011 is a warrant article for $185,000 to purchase a new ambulance from money in the Apparatus and Equipment Special Revenue Fund. That fund, fed through billing for ambulance services, ended 2010 with a balance of $489,700.

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