LACONIA — Sparks flew in the City Council chamber on Monday night when Fire Chief Ken Erickson presented the 2015-2016 Fire Department budget proposal, prompting Councilor Bob Hamel (Ward 5) to challenge his portrayal of the city, along with his assessment of what is required to protect it.
Hamel referred specifically to a section of Erickson's report entitled "Laconia — A Unique City," in which the chief noted the high rates of unemployment, poverty and crime as well as as its "thousands of combustible buildings and homes." The number of structure fires per 1,000 residents,, Erickson calculated, is "one of the highest in the state." He concluded that "our fire department is not staffed adequately to protect and respond to all the various hazards and risks."
Hamel dismissed the description of Laconia as "unique", likening it other old mill towns scattered across the state. He called Erickson's characterization of the city "a tear down", asked "why the hell would anyone move here," and remarked that after reading it "everyone should move out."
Quickly Erickson insisted "my intention was not to degrade the city of Laconia," but he repeated "Laconia is a unique city from my perspective. I have a responsibility," he continued, "to tell you what we need to protect the city."
In particular, Erickson listed funding to retain the four firefighters, hired and paid for the past two years with a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which expires in October, as his top priority.
City Manager Scott Myers has recommended a plan to fund the positions for the next three fiscal years. LRGHealthcare, which contributes to the cost of ambulance service under a contract with the city, will bear half the annual cost of the four positions. The balance would draw on an account established in anticipation of the expiration of the grant, money budgeted to fund the positions through the current fiscal year on the assumption the grant would expire in May and $100,000 in unexpended grant funds. These funds would be supplemented by appropriations of $50,000 in 2016 and $45,000 in 2017 and 2018, representing total new expenditures of $140,000.
The four positions, Erickson said, provides the department with nine firefighters on each shift. The additional personnel has contributed to fewer emergency recalls, which have decreased by 72 percent — from 222 to 62 — from 2010 to 2014, contributing to reduced expenses for overtime, At the time, fire suppression capability has grown, injuries have diminished, response times have improved and inspections have increased. Erickson said that although additional personnel was not solely responsible for the improved efficiency and performance, it was major factor.
But, when Erickson reminded the councilors that Municipal Resources, Inc. recommended the department field 12 firefighters per shift and indicated he would request another four positions in the near future, Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3) cautioned him. "You're asking use to stretch and stretch," he said, explaining that there are levels of risk. "It would help your cause not to push the envelop by trying to eliminate all risk."
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