The current argument has been growing for more than a year between Southington’s 91 volunteer firefighters and 22 paid officers. But it’s not a new debate. Discord seems to show its ugly face whenever there’s a financial crisis.
Fire departments like Southington’s rely on a combination of volunteers and career firefighters as a way to balance a need for the best emergency services with a need to control costs. There’s always a division that comes from this compromise, so it’s no surprise that it’s coming to a head now when town departments are feeling the pressure from Connecticut’s state budget crisis. But the local rift has gone public, and our town’s emergency workers and town officials are starting to look like a group of unruly third graders.
It’s the finger pointing, grandstanding, and personal attacks that are most ridiculous in this disfunctional debate. First, volunteer firefighters wrote a letter accusing the former chief of a vendetta and charging the fire commission for letting him to “run unopposed” in his alleged quest to get rid of all volunteers. Then, the commission chair fired back in his own letter, pointing fingers at town and union officials for the current problems. If you are to believe the volunteers, they get no respect from the former chief or anybody else in charge. If you are to believe the fire commissioner’s letter, the volunteers’ charges are largely unfounded. To make matters worse, a town councilor wagged his finger at the fire commissioner’s public finger pointing without seeing his hypocrisy. The only thing that’s very apparent is that nobody seems to be able to get along. We keep waiting for some authority figure to step into the room and send everybody into a different corner for a timeout.
It seems ridiculous that the Board of Finance has to play babysitter with the checkbook while the 20 layers of management try to show that they can be responsible for controlling overtime. We applaud the Town Council for putting their foot down when they were asked to rubber stamp a request for more staffing even though it wouldn’t reduce overtime. It’s like throwing money at a problem to try to make it go away. In this financial era, that’s not going to happen.
The fire department is the one currently under fire—probably because it’s in flux with the hiring of a new chief—but the town needs to continually ask every department if it has too many bosses and not enough workers. The private sector is constantly asking these questions to stay competitive, so why shouldn’t government face the same scrutiny?
Fire chiefs, police chiefs, and school superintendents must make choices about staffing, but it’s the town boards and commissions that must keep them accountable.
It won’t be long before the spotlight is turned to other town sectors. The questions are just as valid when the town asks, “Do we need as many police officers, teachers, or engineers?” Every year, the town manager and board of education present budgets to the council and finance board with these “fixed costs” that nobody questions. The hard questions, like “Do we have too many teachers or administrators?” or “Do we have too many battalion chiefs or volunteers” are asked quietly in closed door sessions and private contract talks.
Then taxpayers foot the bill.
We think that the argument about a divide between volunteers and career officers is a distraction from the real issues in the budget—overtime abuse and rising costs.
Does the town need more full-timers? Fewer volunteers? Fewer managers? Less overtime or more? It’s about time that these questions are debated publicly for the public sector, but the town needs to do a better job facilitating these debates.