Athol Fire override request to go before Town Election

Athol Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera speaks to members of the Fire Department Staffing Advisory Committee about the need to hire additional firefighter/EMTs. 

Athol Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera speaks to members of the Fire Department Staffing Advisory Committee about the need to hire additional firefighter/EMTs.  FILE PHOTO/GREG VINE

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 02-07-2024 3:46 PM

ATHOL – For the second time in less than a year, Athol voters will be asked whether they will support a Proposition 2 ½ override to provide additional personnel for the town’s Fire Department.

Supporters of the proposal are hoping voters will find the request for $286,000 for three paramedic/EMT/firefighters more acceptable than a $895,000 request for eight personnel put before them at last August’s Special Town Election. That override was soundly defeated by a two-to-one margin by voters concerned about the proposed increase to their property tax bills.

The Selectboard voted unanimously at its meeting Tuesday evening to put the question on the April 1 annual Town Election ballot following a presentation from Ken Duffy, chair of the Fire Department Staffing Advisory Committee.

“While last summer, voters rejected the proposal to add eight positions…through the override process,” Duffy told the board, “the fact remains that the staffing issue still remains to be dealt with and, as such, the future viability of the future operations – specifically the ambulance service – is an issue that needs a resolution. After review of the current facts and figures, the committee is recommending a hybrid approach to help resolve this issue.”

The hybrid approach recommended by the advisory committee would add one new position using funds from the town’s general operating budget, with another three through the proposed override.

“This plan,” Duffy continued, “is the most realistic way we can maintain the operation of this ambulance service in its current form of two units, while understanding the need to keep the added cost as reasonable as possible to the taxpayers.”

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He then explained that, if passed, the override would add $62.31 to the property tax bill of an average single-family home in Athol, currently valued at just over $286,000. The average tax bill for the current fiscal year was $3,634.

“The committee is now recommending the addition of four full-time positions,” Duffy said. “This recommendation would increase staffing from four members per shift to five members per shift. This would allow the town to continue to operate two ambulances. Also, the added positions would eliminate the need for a (personnel) call-back to meet minimum staffing requirements when the first ambulance leave for a call, as there will be three staff still at the station.”

The collective bargaining agreement the town has with the Athol Firefighters Association requires no fewer than three people on duty at the fire station per shift. Duffy said in the event the second ambulance is called out while the first is still answering a call, there would be need for a call-back. In 2023, he said, this happened 450 times.

Rebecca Bialecki, who along with Brian Dodge, serve as the Selectboard’s representatives on the advisory committee said, “I think this is the right recommendation for where we are right now.”

“I agree with that,” said Dodge. “If something is not done, the town is going to lose the ambulance as they know it today. We don’t see any way around it. I get that people don’t like their taxes raised, but something needs to be done.”

Following approval of a motion to add the override question to the Town Election ballot, Bialecki offered a second motion asking that the board “continue to support the addition of EMT/paramedic/firefighter positions until the critical need of eight positions total is reached over the coming years.”

“I agree with that, but I don’t want people to get the concern that we’re going to add four (this year), and then next year we’re going to ask for four,” said Dodge. “The motion is to reach the ultimate goal of getting eight EMT/paramedic/firefighters. But we’re not going to come back next year and say, ‘Hey, we want an override for four more.’ That’s not going to happen – and I just want people to understand that. The ultimate goal is to get where we need to be, depending on the finances of the town.”

Bialecki’s motion was approved unanimously.

If the proposed override is approved at the Town Election, it must still be endorsed by a majority of voters at the June Annual Town Meeting to go into effect.

The annual Town Election will take place on Monday, April 1. Polls at Athol Town Hall will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.