ELLSWORTH — Staffing shortages in the city’s public safety departments was the topic at hand during a final budget workshop on Monday evening, with both the city’s police and fire chiefs presenting tales of their struggles.
Ellsworth Police Chief Glenn Moshier, who had previously asked councilors for money to add an officer to the department’s ranks, told them he was amending the request because he had been notified that morning that another officer will be retiring in July.
“So I’d be out in the market trying to find two officers, which by the way is not easy,” Moshier said.
In an interview after the meeting, Moshier said that because it’s so unlikely he will be able to immediately find two officers to fill both the anticipated vacancy and the new position, he asked the council to fund the new position for half a year, rather than a full year.
“The reality of my world is that in order for me to get an officer trained and on the road, filling shifts, you’re looking at a minimum of a year.”
That would allow him time to hire two officers and get them into the 18-week Maine Criminal Justice Academy training that begins at the end of December.
The vacancy left by the retiring officer will likely be filled by an officer who is lower on the pay scale, Moshier said, leaving the department with a projected $10,000 to help cover the cost of hiring a new officer.
“I’ve got a heck of a deal for you today,” Moshier told councilors.
With the surplus, “The second position would come at a mere cost to the city of $12,000 if you funded it for just half a year,” Moshier said. “That’s the bargain basement cost of a police officer.”
The budget has not been finalized, but councilors indicated that they would approve Moshier’s request.
But a request for more staff from Ellsworth Fire Department Chief Richard Tupper looks less likely to be approved, with councilors asking instead what the city could do to increase its volunteer firefighting roster.
On Monday, as he has in years past, Tupper asked councilors to consider adding full-time firefighters to the roster to help ensure that there will be enough staff to answer the increasing number of calls.
“Realistically I’m looking for three to keep those shifts balanced,” he told councilors, adding that he had asked for six positions in a letter to the council but didn’t expect that request to be granted.
Tupper said in an interview the next day that he expects it is unlikely the positions will be added this year. If the city were to add three full-time firefighters, it would add $144,936 to his department’s yearly budget, he said. That would be an annual cost of roughly $43 for each of the city’s 3,350 households.
“We’re a booming city,” said Tupper, but emergency services “is struggling to keep pace,” and volunteers have less and less time to devote to calls.
The department’s most active volunteer firefighter made “about 3 percent of calls and training last year,” Tupper said.
Reggie Winslow, the city’s Water Department superintendent, who was sworn in as a paid-on-call volunteer firefighter in 2017, told the council that despite working just upstairs from the Fire Department, he has only made one call in the past two years.
“I just don’t have time,” Winslow said. “I’m here in Ellsworth every day and I don’t even have time to make it to a car accident to help out.”
Volunteers are compensated between $13.34 and $16.12 an hour for responding to a fire, depending on skills and experience, Tupper said later.
That can be a tough sell in an area where jobs waiting tables and mowing lawns pay better and offer less-erratic hours and fewer hazards. Employers strapped for workers are also less willing to let their staff run to a fire at a moment’s notice.
But Councilor Dawn Hudson questioned whether or not the department had done enough to make volunteers feel welcome.
“What things has your department done to bring those people into the fold?” Hudson asked. She said that she has spoken to volunteers who feel as though they are being asked to do menial tasks such as coiling hose and washing trucks, rather than fighting fires.
“There’s a definite divide and it’s discouraging,” Hudson said. “The volunteers feel like they’re not part of your department.”
Tupper acknowledged that “Yes, career staff are getting to an incident a little bit sooner than others,” and that when volunteers arrive there may not be fire left to fight. But, Tupper said, “We can’t put the fire on hold waiting for them to get there.”
“Other areas, other towns, only have volunteers,” said Hudson, adding that she would like to add more full-time paid staff but doesn’t see how it is financially possible.
“We should spend some more time and energy to make [volunteerism] work.”
“Every department in this state is suffering the same issue that we are,” Councilman Gary Fortier replied, referring to the difficulty attracting and retaining volunteers.
The Maine State Federation of Firefighters estimates that the number of volunteer firefighters statewide has dropped from 12,000 to 7,000 in the past three decades. There have been some initiatives at the state level to try and address the problem, including a bill under consideration that would fund a pension for volunteer firefighters and calls to increase pay, but many departments around the state say they are struggling.
Tupper said after the meeting that the department had tried to do volunteer-building activities such as holding lunches and offering hats and shirts emblazoned with department logos, but that it hadn’t produced measurable results.
Councilors did not indicate on Monday whether or not they would support Tupper’s request for the new positions, but a draft of the city budget does not include them.