Fire chief: Overtime costs could be cut by hiring firefighters


LACONIA — The fire department could potentially shave about $100,000 off its yearly overtime expense if it could hire four new firefighters to supplement its current staff, Fire Chief Ken Erickson said Wednesday.

But the savings on overtime wouldn't be nearly enough to pay salary and benefit packages for four new people, the chief said.

Still, he is asking for the additional firefighters in his budget request, saying he feels it is the right thing to do from a public safety perspective.

I'm always looking at increasing the level of service we provide,” he said. “The City Council wants to save money. I'm looking at this saying, 'We need to increase the level of service and we need to increase the umbrella of safety.”'

Budget requests from all departments will be considered by the City Council as it goes through its yearly budget process this spring and summer. A proposed budget prepared by City Manager Scott Myers does not call for additional staffing. The city is operating under a tax cap that this year allows for only a minimal increase in spending.

Overtime is a perennial issue in budget discussions.

A city report on wages showed the 40-person fire department had about $600,000 in overtime last year, but Erickson said this statistic is deceptive and that a news report on it in Saturday's Laconia Daily Sun has been demoralizing for a busy, efficient and fast-responding department with a low rate of absenteeism.

The city is only responsible for about half that amount, since Lakes Region General Hospital picks up much of the rest of the expense through an ambulance contract. Other groups also pay overtime for special events. Holiday pay, which is necessary in all full-time fire services, is also included in the overtime category.

Most places of employment close for the holiday and give you the day off with pay,” Erickson said. “Firefighters can't close, so what they do is they get an extra day's pay. There's 11 holidays a year, so basically they get 11 extra days of pay.

It's not extra money. They had to work Christmas, or they had to work Thanksgiving, or they had to work the Fourth  of July.”

The department has just enough personnel to provide around-the-clock coverage at the central station and the firehouse at The Weirs. That means that when someone is on vacation, injured, at a class, or sick, a replacement is typically called in on overtime.

But it's not like anyone is conspiring to game the system with fake illness, Erickson said.

Last year, the average firefighter used eight vacation days, three sick days, 0.3 line-of-duty injury days and five personal days for an average of 16 days per firefighter,” he said.

Erickson averaged fire statistics from Portsmouth, Dover, Salem and Derry and compared those averages to what the Laconia Fire Department has experienced.

Those cities have an average of 66 firefighters with 15 on duty, 14 emergencies per day, 176 calls per 1,000 population, 1.36 building fires per 1,000 population and a fire department cost per home of $580.

Laconia has 40 firefighters with nine on duty, 13 emergencies per day, 288 calls per 1,000 population, 3.9 building fires per 1,000 population and a cost per home of $343.

Laconia Fire Department Capt. Christopher Shipp, who is also the president of the firefighters union local, said in a letter to the newspaper that the department's current duty staffing of nine firefighters spread between two stations is lower than national recommendations, particularly given the growing number of emergency calls in the city.

In 2016, we responded to over 4,600 emergencies, which makes us one of the busiest fire departments in the state,” he said. “We do what we can with the staffing level we have and quite frankly we do a phenomenal job at it.”

He also said overtime is mandatory.

When a vacancy occurs, the person who is next on the overtime list cannot refuse the overtime,” Shipp said. “That person has two choices, work it, or give it away."

Higher-than-average potential for fires has always been present in Laconia, the chief said. He keeps a chart of all significant fires that have occurred in the city during his tenure.

Most are located in areas that firefighters can reach within about four minutes of getting an emergency call.

That's important because much of the city's housing stock is older and more prone to fire, Erickson said. Also, an aging population is leading to an increased number of medical and service calls. The seasonal use of some residences means population figures may be underreported.

Erickson said fires have long been a problem in the Laconia area, owing in part to the natural topography and prevailing winds.

When you look at the city, because it's in a valley, you have homes that are stacked above each other,” he said. “That's just conducive to the rapid spread of fires.

One of the worst fires in the state of New Hampshire burned Lakeport to the ground in 1904. Over a hundred homes and buildings were destroyed.”





Towns asked to kick in on county dispatch


LACONIA — Nine towns are being asked to fill the gap in the Belknap County Sheriff's Department's budget to pay for emergency dispatch services. Belknap County Commissioners are looking to plug the $127,000 hole left by the county's budget cuts.

Commissioner Hunter Taylor (R-Alton) said the department currently provides coverage for nine of the 11 communities in Belknap County. Both Laconia and Gilford have their own 24/7 dispatch operations and do not rely on the county.

Full 24/7 coverage is provided by the Sheriff's Department for six towns – New Hampton, Center Harbor, Barnstead, Alton, Gilmanton and Sanbornton – and evening coverage is provided for Tilton, Meredith and Belmont.

Taylor said that if each of the six towns which get 24/7 coverage contribute $20,000 and those which receive partial coverage pay $6,000, the department would have sufficient funds to continue to provide other services which it is mandated to provide.

The discussions will begin Monday night in Alton when Taylor and Belknap County Sheriff Mike Moyer meet with selectmen there.

“This isn't something we want to do. The commission is committed to regionalization of services and realizes this would be a step back from that idea. We're still hoping to get funding restored in a supplemental budget,” said Taylor.

He said the County Delegation cut a full-time deputy and full-time dispatcher from the sheriff's budget, as well as overtime, and that Moyer has told the commission that there is no way that he will be able to keep from exceeding the budget which was approved.

It was suggested by members of the delegation that the sheriff cut services such as dispatch, the SWAT team and running radar for traffic control.

“Maybe the sheriff should drop some of these extra activities to save money,” wrote Delegation Vice Chairman Ray Howard (R-Alton) in a letter to the editor published in the March 28 Laconia Daily Sun.

Taylor said completely eliminating dispatch services would save the county over $500,000 a year but cause major problems for communities which rely on the services, particularly smaller towns.

Belmont selectmen have not yet been approached by the commission but have expressed “significant concerns regarding the County budget battle being waged in the press” in a letter sent to Delegation Chairman Herb Vadney (R-Meredith).

“We have heard that as a result the County may have to consider closing the dispatch center in order for the Sheriff to meet his constitutional duties. Such a proposal would seriously impact the town of Belmont and its residents/taxpayers. It would require that a minimum of four full-time dispatchers be hired with an impact of $212,780,” the letter reads.

It also criticizes the delegation for cuts made to the Corrections Department staffing budget.

“It is difficult to believe that you would have voted to construct a facility without realizing the budgetary needs it would require and that you would expect other agencies in the county to suffer for your lack of forethought.”

Federal report: Rental housing costs continue rise, NH rents expected to increase this year


LACONIA — A new national snapshot of rental housing costs suggests that New Hampshire will see a continued creep upward in its rents this year.
In the state's surveys, rental costs have been on an upward trend, year after year, said Jane Law, communications manager at New Hampshire Housing.
In the past five years, "the trends have been upward," Law said.
"On a statewide basis, the vacancy rate has been dropping for a number of years," she said, meaning fewer units going for higher prices.
In New Hampshire, officials are working on this year's rental trends report, due out in June, but results in the past five years suggest a continued climb in rents and a shortage of vacancies.
And last month, the U.S. Census Bureau issued an update on rental housing, and the trends were for higher rents and less availability.
Nationally, a $1,507 median asking rent in the third quarter of 2016 was $161 more than the median asking rent of $1,346 in the third quarter of 2015, according to the new report on rental housing trends, "Survey of Market Absorption of New Multifamily Units – Annual 2016 Absorptions."
The Census Bureau designed the survey to provide data concerning the rate at which privately financed, nonsubsidized, unfurnished units in buildings with five or more units are rented or sold, or "absorbed."
Issued last month, the Census Bureau survey does not target information by state, but 59 percent of seasonally adjusted newly completed, unfurnished rental apartments built in the third quarter of 2016 were rented within the first three months after completion. "The 59 percent seasonally adjusted rate in the third quarter of 2016 was six percentage points higher than the 53 percent for the second quarter 2016, but approximately the same as the third quarter 2015, as seasonally adjusted," the report noted.
"The three-month absorption rate by asking rent ranged from 46 percent (units renting for more than $2,450) to 73 percent (units renting for less than $850). The median asking rent for units absorbed within three months was $1,453," the report noted.
The Northeast and Midwest accounted for 14 percent of the new construction during the third quarter of 2016, the Census Bureau reported.
Law at New Hampshire Housing said in June, the agency will issue this year's rental numbers based on April and May data, collected by the survey center at University of New Hampshire.
"Last year, our rents were up, and vacancies were very low," she said.
Demand, particularly in southern New Hampshire, where rents often exceed $1,200 a month, "the market is opening up. There is more rental housing construction going on, especially in the lower tiers of the state," Law said.
"But those units typically go on the market on the high end for rents because it's covering the cost of construction," she said.
In Belknap County, rents hovered just under $1,000 for a two-bedroom apartment, including utilities, in the 2016 report. Vacancy rates were below 5 percent, compared with 1.5 percent statewide.
Southern New Hampshire counties struggled with vacancy rates below 2 percent. A 2 percent vacancy rate is considered a turnover rate, Law said.
In Merrimack County, the median two-bedroom rent was $1,113; in Hillsborough County, it was $1,219; and in Rockingham County, it was $1,270. In Belknap County the median two-bedroom rent was $997.
"It's still up there," Law said. "The cheapest place to rent is in Coos County, and that's $790 for a median two-bedroom rent."
In Belknap County, a three-person household needed a median income of $39,900 to afford the rent. In Rockingham County, the needed median income was $55,800.
To be affordable, housing should not cost more than 30 percent of income, New Hampshire Housing estimated.
"The for-sale housing, that market has become very tight. Purchase prices are up. The housing economy is still very strong and very tight in the state," Law said.
The state has seen almost a 15 percent increase in rents including utilities for two-bedroom apartments since 2011.
For more on the Census Bureau survey, visit
For more on the New Hampshire Housing survey, visit