March 18. 2013 11:41PM

Overtime expenses bust Londonderry fire budget

Union Leader Correspondent

LONDONDERRY - Fire officials said department overtime expenses would likely put them $225,000 over budget when the fiscal year ends July 1.

During Monday night's Town Council meeting, acting Fire Chief Darren O'Brien, who has been on the job just over a week following the recent retirement of Chief Kevin MacCaffrie, said he's been working closely with Londonderry's finance department to monitor the fire department's expenses.

Interim Town Manager Bill Hart said the discussion was held at the council's request, as staff have been asked to alert councilors when a department's budget has surpassed the 75 percent mark in overtime costs.

As of March 1, just over 70 percent of the overall department's budget has been spent, O'Brien said, though he said 93 percent of the overtime budget has already been spent this year.

"We're a bit high on the overall budget, but not off the scale," O'Brien said. "The problem we're having right now is with overtime costs."

In response, a spending freeze has been placed on all budgetary items with the exception of absolute necessities, O'Brien said.

At the direction of the council, the current staffing levels at the town's fire departments must remain at 10. That would present a challenge, fire officials said, in the event of unanticipated medical leaves of absence.

Several years ago, Town Meeting voters allowed the town to add another $166,000 to the fire department's overtime budget.

"I don't think I have any staff that's abusing time," O'Brien said. "But I do think that the overtime budget was grossly underestimated several years ago."

The acting fire chief said that overtime expenses are simply difficult to determine, as they tend to arise unexpectedly.

"It's not just staff vacations," he said. "Regardless, we're required to replace staff when they're out, and we need to get the lines drawn out."

Councilor Tom Dolan asked what the recent overtime expenditures would mean for the budget's bottom line.

"It very well could affect the bottom line," O'Brien said, noting that the fire department had recently grappled with unanticipated vehicle and equipment repairs, not to mention this week's failure of an emergency generator at Central Fire Station.

The good news, Hart said, is that overall municipal revenues are expected to increase this year.

"We expect every other department will be at or under budget. Some of those will be under budget in a manner that will allow us to cover the costs of fire department overage," Hart said. "At this point it wouldn't be prudent to be wildly optimistic, but I do expect we'll come out OK."

In the coming months, the issue will be further discussed with the council when town officials work out a plan on managing overtime expenses better in future years.