MOUNT DESERT — Fire Chief Mike Bender’s draft budget for next fiscal year of just over $1.9 million is about $1.2 million more than the current year’s budget, an increase of 171 percent.
That is due in part to the proposed creation of eight new firefighter/EMT positions necessitated by the transfer of responsibility for emergency medical services (EMS) from the Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service to the town’s fire department.
Officials of the independent ambulance service, which has served Mount Desert for 84 years, say that because of a serious and growing shortage of volunteer and part-time paid EMTs, they can no longer guarantee the level of service the community needs.
Bender said he plans to hire people who are certified as firefighters and need to get their EM license or vice versa.
The fire department’s fulltime, paid staff currently includes the chief, a captain, a lieutenant and two fire firefighters. Their annual salaries total $298,855.
Last month, the Select Board authorized Bender to begin recruiting for five new firefighter/EMT positions, which he hopes to fill this spring. The NEH Ambulance Service has offered to cover the cost of those new positions through June 30, which is the end of the fiscal year. Voters at the May 2 town meeting will be asked to approve tax funding for those positions starting July 1.
In addition to those positions, Bender is budgeting for three more new firefighter/EMTs in the coming fiscal year. That would bring the fire department’s salary total to $790,907.
Bender had thought he might not need to create any positions next year in addition to the five for which he is already recruiting. That possibility was related to the expansion of the fire station in Somesville to provide living quarters for fire and EMS personnel. He had been talking with Bar Harbor officials about the two towns jointly staffing the Somesville station.
But it doesn’t appear that is going to happen, at least not in the next few years, he told the Select Board on Monday. So, it is likely, he said, that he will need to hire three additional firefighter/EMTs.
To reflect his greater responsibilities, Bender proposed that his pay grade be increased one step, raising his salary from $74,694 this year to $85,991. But Town Manger Durlin Lunt has recommended to the Select Board that Bender be bumped up two pay grades, with a salary next year of $96,072.
Lunt said the board has “enthusiastically supported” that increase, which puts Bender’s salary in line with that of other town department heads.
Of course, salaries aren’t the only personnel-related costs in the fire department budget. There is health insurance, overtime pay, on-call pay, holiday pay, workers’ compensation and retirement system contributions.
Police and dispatch
The Select Board also reviewed the budget requests for the police department and dispatchers at Monday’s meeting.
Police Chief Jim Willis has proposed a budget for next year of $1.08 million, which is 19.6 percent more than the current year’s budget. The increase is due largely to salaries and benefits.
Willis serves as police chief for both Mount Desert and Bar Harbor. Bar Harbor pays 60 percent of his salary, which next year will be $121,394.
The budget for dispatch is actually slated to go down by about $6,600 next year to $372,026. The biggest area of savings is health insurance costs, where a drop from $65,144 to $44,817 is projected.
Willis told the Select Board on Monday, “I’m getting nervous about being able to staff dispatch 24/7. Our staffing model for years has been to train people in dispatch and grow them into police officers.
“But now I’m kind of out of people,” he said. “So, I wanted to give you a heads up that I might be coming back to you with a real problem soon about what to do on an overnight shift or something like that.”