Expanding salaries, benefits crowd out ambulance addition

Monitor staff
Sunday, June 18, 2017

For the 10,000 followers of the Concord firefighters’ union Facebook page, one message has become a regular presence in their news feeds.

“7:40 a.m. and all ambulances are out on calls,” read a June 6 post. “Looks like it will be another busy day in the capital city.”

The prediction was right. Over the course of the day, the page would issue two more warnings that the city’s three ambulances were simultaneously occupied.

These familiar posts receive a reliable response: commenters electronically rolling their eyes at the city’s decision not to add an additional ambulance in the upcoming budget year.

But their suggestions that the city council has been stingy on public safety aren’t backed up by the numbers. The budgets of Concord’s police and fire departments have increased by more than $7 million combined – or 37 percent – since 2010.

That expense has been driven almost entirely by salaries and benefits, which on average over that time increased more than $800,000 a year, crowding out new requests for things like ambulances and K-9 units.

After salaries and benefits are paid, the amount left over for each department – less than 6 percent of the bottom line – will be smaller next year than it was eight years ago.

Fire Chief Dan Andrus said he strongly believes his department needs another ambulance. In 2015, he said, there were 260 instances when all three were busy at once, and emergency calls for ambulances have increased 19 percent over the past three years.

But he also sees the dilemma from the taxpayer’s point of view, he said, wherein the city has to pay rising health care and retirement costs from “a largely static revenue base.”

“We’ll continue that request (for an ambulance), and certainly from my viewpoint in this department it’s definitely something I’d like to see, but it does come with a price tag of three-quarters of a million dollars annually,” Andrus said, calculating that the addition would increase the tax rate about 2 percent.

Similarly, police Chief Brad Osgood saw numerous requests for new services – from a K-9 unit to investigative training to dry cleaning for uniform shirts – go unanswered in the upcoming budget.

“I would love to see all of that get funded, but I’m a realist and I know that can’t happen,” Osgood said, noting that one request, $29,000 for a community service aide that will assist in some of the clerical aspects of police work, was granted in the budget process. “I’m pleased with what the manager and mayor and council have given us this year.”

For departments as personnel-centric as police and fire, keeping up with contractual obligations adds hundreds of thousands of dollars year over year before any other aspects of the budget are considered.

In the 2018 budget, the cost of benefits for those two departments increased more than $900,000 – upward of 10 percent – over the previous year’s budget, as health insurance became more expensive and the state continued to downshift retirement costs to municipalities.

That alone dwarfs the $772,000-a-year cost of adding an ambulance company, with enough spare change to pay for more than half the cost of the ambulance itself.

Andrus said he’s optimistic that an additional ambulance could be added as soon as next year, and he noted that outside the normal budget process, the fire department is receiving $1.4 million for two ambulance replacements and eight other projects through the capital improvement program.

City Manager Tom Aspell said last month at a budget hearing that his administration is already planning increased resources to maintain the city’s “first-class” emergency response.

“Could be next year, could be the year after,” he said.

Whenever it happens, it’ll add more staff into the salaries and benefits equation.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at