By SHERIDAN ROY
Members of the public came out in strong support of the Southington Fire Department’s budget request to add two full time firefighters during the Town Council budget public hearing on April 22.
The public hearing focused on the Board of Finance’s proposed budget, which includes $54.8 million on the general government side and $98.9 million on the Board of Education side. The town manager included the request for two full time firefighters in his budget proposal.
“Fire Chief Richard Butler did a complete analysis of the department and determined a severe shortage of full time firefighters,” said fire commissioner Christine Shanley-Buck. “The town manager sees a need for the two firefighters. The BOF sees a need for it. And now, it’s up to the Town Council.”
Shanley-Buck urged the council to give Butler the tools he needs to do his job, and said it would not be fiscally responsible to add staffing despite the town growing.
SFD battalion chief and union president Glenn Dube said the town has not added a significant amount of staff to the department since 1999. He said one full time firefighter was added in 2006 and one inspector was added in 2012.
“When Chief Butler was brought to or town after a nationwide search, he evaluated our needs. He, along with assistant chief [James] Paul, have over 65 combined years of experience,” said Dube. “The town has grown significantly since 1999 because it’s an amazing place to live, and that comes with the responsibility to provide the proper amount of infrastructure to protect it.”
One resident questioned why the town would look to hire additional firefighters while volunteer firefighters are available to do the job. Dube said the department is not in any way anti-volunteer firefighters, but pointed out the number of volunteers has reduced significantly over the years.
“We are not here to serve the union or volunteers. We are here to serve the person who calls and says, ‘help me,’” said Dube.
Fire commissioner Chris Robinson said public safety is the key issue.
“We recently have responded to four or five major fires, and had to call for mutual aid,” said Robinson. “Is this the year for the fire department to get their two firefighters?”
When Chief Butler was hired in the summer of 2018, one of his biggest priorities was to address the climbing overtime hours. Through his evaluation of the department, part of the fix was his request for two additional firefighters. The town manager included it in his budget, and the BOF approved it unanimously.
In addition to the SFD budget, the Board of Education budget was addressed by some speakers. BOE chair Brian Goralski requested that the council restore some of the funding that was cut by the BOF in their proposal.
“The BOE needs small, incremental increases to fund new programs that drive our vision of a graduate,” said Goralski. “We stand by our budget request that was unanimously agreed upon, and we ask that you consider our original request.”
BOE member Bob Brown said the education system has changed dramatically, and youth today require additional support.
“The powerful influence of social media impacts our young people,” said Brown. “It brings a variety of emotional issues. The world is changing around us.”
Brown, a former teacher of Southington Public Schools, said he used to have classrooms of more than 30 students, but said that number today is ineffective as students require more from their teachers and their school system.
The town council will have three weeks to review the BOF budget proposal and consider the comments made at the public hearing. On May 13, they will adopt the 2019-20 budget. The BOF will set the mill rate on May 15.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Roy, email her at SRoy@SouthingtonObserver.com.