When considering whether a town budget has room for a specific item, it always comes down to the dollars. And any decision you make is always subject to second-guessing.
But that’s governance, that’s politics, that’s how we decide what to do with the limited amount of taxpayer money available each year.
Given all that, it is troubling to know that Wallingford’s Rescue 3, a pickup truck that carries gear primarily for medical calls, was off the road for a month this year because of a budget shortfall, only coming back into service on March 25.
Troubling because Rescue 3 not only provides medical responses to the public but can also be called upon to treat firefighters at emergency scenes. And troubling because the town — having decided years ago that it needed to have such a unit, and then having paid for the truck and its equipment, and for training its crew — let it sit idle for four weeks.
While it’s reassuring to know that fire crews didn’t miss any calls for the month Rescue 3 was out of service, we have to wonder what a big emergency, or a series of emergencies happening at the same time, might have meant for those at risk.
The explanation for the budget shortfall that took Rescue 3 out of service is that keeping the unit on the road requires overtime in the event of vacations, illness, injury or unfilled positions. And the department currently has two unfilled positions.
Fire Chief Richard Heidgerd said he approached Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. about acquiring additional funds but was told no extra money was available to cover the truck, so he took it off the road temporarily. The obvious conclusion is that town leadership does not consider Rescue 3 an essential piece of equipment.
“Anytime something is funded totally from overtime, that creates a sustainability question,” Dickinson has said. “The real issue is, are calls being answered, and are we providing a service?”
Point taken. But the question remains: Why have a piece of emergency equipment on hand, but with no crew to operate it? It takes around $220,000 to run Rescue 3 for a year. We hope that amount can be found in a town budget of $165 million.
Heidgerd has said it’s not easy to forecast how many firefighters will take time off, and when.
The solution, then, may be to get the Fire Department up to strength by filling those two posts. If only the mayor can seek modifications to the budget, then town councilors should take a hard look at the place for Rescue 3 in the upcoming budget.
“To have the safety of our town at risk because we haven’t replaced positions is a scary thought,” Councilor Gina Morgenstein said recently. “Certainly, when budget time comes, we need to make sure we’re fully funding.”