Cheshire is currently experiencing a shortage of police and fire department employees that, according to both Police Chief Neil Dryfe and Fire Chief Jack Casner, could put the town in a precarious position in the coming years.
At the March 25 budget workshop of the Town Council, both chiefs explained how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated problems occurring at their departments. Casner stated that his budget request of $1,357,338 will go towards a variety of things, such as the creation of a pension fund as well as water main and hydrant maintenance. However, a big focus will be on incentive programs to entice a new crop of firefighters to join the department.
“There were the days when we used to have a waiting list of fire (department) volunteers,” Casner explained to the Council. “But right now we are currently down to 65 volunteers and, while we are really happy with that number, it’s nowhere near where we used to be.”
In order to try and retain more volunteers, Casner explained that a pension committee has been formed to explore offering the option to those who have served Cheshire for a number of years.
“We have a committee of firemen that have worked with the Town Finance Department and the actuarial team … to come up with several options,” Casner stated. “There are five different options, and when we met with the committee we said to them that it wasn’t fiscally possible to fund all five options, but we can pick one option and phase it in every year or every other year over the next several years …”
Casner then detailed that while the younger generation of firefighters may not care as much about the pension plan, once they have been working for 10 years, volunteers become interested in any benefits they can receive.
While the Council listened to Casner’s request, Chair Rob Oris was adamant in his belief that a pension fund would be too costly.
“In recent years, we have really been trying to stay away from pensions because of the long-term liability of it,” he stated. “Is there a way to structure something else that is more of a direct contribution to a 401k, or whatever you would call it?”
“I am not quite sure how you would do that, only because technically they’re not employees and generally that is a contribution of a percentage of what a person contributes to the town,” Casner said. “I just don’t know how you would derive a number from a volunteer, but I am open for discussion as to how to go about that. I know my guys are just happy that we’re discussing it now.”
Budget Committee Chair David Borowy added that, while there may be concerns about pension plans, he believes that the Town should “do something” for the resident volunteer firefighters who live and work in the community, but he admits that he is unsure how the Town can go about it.
Police Chief Neil Dryfe echoed many of Casner’s concerns about staffing, informing the Council that his department is stretched thin. The Police Department budget request of $6,228,209 will aide in personnel issues, including payroll, salary line increases, and unfreezing the 48th officer position that was frozen last year.
“Due to the shortage of officers, we’ve had to seriously reconsider the school resource officers at (Cheshire) High School,” Dryfe said. “We try to make sure that one of the two officers is available, but if the shortage continues I might be coming in front of you later on and telling you that we need to pull the officers from the school.”
The decision on school resource officers may be determined by how many retirement notifications the department receives, Dryfe indicated.
Councilor Sylvia Nichols offered her support for the departments, stating that while the Council might be wary of exploring some of the proposals, the alternative of doing nothing could cost much more in the long run.
“If we don’t help out our first responders, the cost on the town will be much greater than whatever they are requesting now. We should remember that,” Nichols warned.