The Branford Fire Department will increase staffing with eight new firefighters; the town is purchasing a 14-acre property on Tabor Drive; and the second contract has been approved for town supervisors and department heads.
With bipartisan action, the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) approved all three proposals by a unanimous vote of the 25 members present Wednesday night. The RTM’s Ways and Means Committee and the Public Services Committee previously voted unanimously in favor of the proposals.
Safer With SAFER
The Branford Fire Department will be hiring eight new firefighters by Jan. 1 after receiving a federal grant of $1.46 million from the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) program. The final go-ahead came with the RTM’s approval of $279,630, which represents a portion of the local share.
The move is expected to improve services and increase safety. The new hires will increase full-time staffing from eight per shift to 10 per shift. Branford’s career firefighters are also paramedics who staff the town’s five ambulances.
SAFER is a three-year grant program that provides 75 percent funding for the eight firefighters in the first two years, and 35 percent funding in the third year, with Branford picking up the remainder of the costs.
“Everybody worked very hard to get the grant,” Fire Chief Thomas Mahoney told the Eagle after the meeting. “It feels great.”
The chief said there has been a 35 percent increase in emergency calls since 2005, which was the last time that staffing increased. He said 74 percent of their calls are for emergency medical services and rescues, including vehicle accidents.
“It’s the needs of the community that are driving the need for more manpower,” Mahoney said. A contributing factor is that Branford’s demographics include an increasing older population.
In addition to the increase in calls, Mahoney said there has been a decrease in the availability of firefighters from the town’s volunteer companies. “We have great volunteers. They’re highly trained and motivated.” However, he said the volunteer hours are limited because they work full-time jobs elsewhere.
The department has been supplementing the full-time crew with part-time firefighters in the past three years.
In addition to Chief Mahoney and Assistant Chief Sean Heffernan, the department currently has 32 full-time firefighter/paramedics. The salary for a first year firefighter is $56,093 plus benefits.
The funding was approved by the Board of Finance (BOF) last month. It was discussed at length during budget presentations last spring.
Peter Black (R-3), who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, said the federal grant “eases the pain financially” for the next three years.
“It’s being driven by the fact that all of us are getting older individually …and we’re getting older as a town, and that means more health problems,” Black said.
“This will give us the fire protection that we should have,” Black said. “It’s a balance between how much risk do we want to take and how much money do we want to spend. And I think that a lot of people who were skeptical for a long time have decided that we’re taking too much risk and we need to lessen that risk and expand our manpower.”
Donald Conklin (R-5th), who chairs the Public Services Committee, said he previously “struggled” with the cost of increasing manpower, but came to realize that the fire department was stretched “a little too thin.”
Chris Sullivan (D-6th) said the town is obligated to provide services to keep people safe. “I’m all in favor of this increase in staff and I encourage everyone to vote in favor.”
Tom Brockett (D-7th) thanked the fire chief, the assistant chief, and the union. “This will allow firefighters and paramedics to adequately staff the facility,” he said, urging everyone to vote in favor. “I am grateful for the work of our first responders.”
More Tabor Drive Property
The town is poised to purchase a 14.5-acre property on Tabor Drive owned by the Zuwalick family, following approvals by the BOF last month and the RTM on Wednesday.
Rep. Black said they were approving funding up to $250,000 to acquire the property. He said the property had once been on the market for $350,000; but the owner agreed to a price of $245,000, which was the recent assessment.
The property is zoned residential R-3. A portion of the land was a former landfill and another area is in a FEMA flood zone.
Rep. Sullivan said he was in favor of the purchase. “I think it’s good for the town to be pro-active,” he said.
The town’s Select Committee on Open Space Acquisition (SCOSA) had recommended that the town purchase the property as open space. The site is adjacent to more than 130 acres of continuous open space owned by the town and the Land Trust.
Bill Horne, SCOSA chair, previously said that acquiring the undeveloped property as protected open space would provide a buffer to the adjacent town-owned Ecology Park and would also create a buffer area between the old landfill and current residential development to the north and west.
The Eagle later asked First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove if he plans to keep the property as open space.
“There’s no plans for anything for the property,” Cosgrove said, but added that there won’t be a conservation easement on the site. A conservation easement is a deed restriction that limits development.
Cosgrove said any future plans would have to be approved by the RTM. He said it’s possible the land could be used for solar panel arrays to produce electricity. Panels have been installed on the nearby town-owned 77-acre Tabor Drive property and Ecology Park. He said another possibility could be soccer fields.
During the meeting, the RTM asked Cosgrove for an update on the Harbor Street Bridge replacement project and the status of the Community House/Senior Center expansion project. Cosgrove said both projects have encountered delays for various reasons, but are moving forward. He said new completion dates are being evaluated.
Pay Increases for Department Heads
Anthony Alfone (R-6th) said the contract for department heads and supervisors includes an annual 2.5 percent pay increase for fiscal years 2017-18 through 2020-2021. He also said there will be some changes in medical benefits.
The employees have been represented by Local 818-60 of Council 4 of AFSCME, AFL-CIO since 2012, and negotiated their first contract in 2014.
The 12 unionized employees include positions such as town engineer, director of the senior center, assessor, town planner, inland wetlands environmental director and library director.
The supervisors sought unionization in 2012 after politically divisive fights over salary increases by both the Board of Finance (BOF) and the RTM. The fight split the BOF and members of the RTM.