A full Petersburg borough assembly Monday overturned a vote from July and gave the green light to fill two vacant public safety jobs. That means the borough will seek to hire a police sergeant and a combination fire fighter and emergency medical services coordinator.
Department heads, volunteers and community members have been lobbying the assembly to fill the jobs for the better part of a year. The fire department job will add a paid staffer to respond to both fire and ambulance calls and to train medical volunteers.
One longtime volunteer EMT Rexanne Stafford made her case again for filling that position.
“You know in my personal and professional opinion as an EMT, I feel it’s your, the council’s responsibility to put the safety of this community first, before anything else, safety has to come first,” Stafford said.
The assembly has heard about an increase in medical calls in the community and a volunteer group that has been stretched thin to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Assembly member Taylor Norheim was among those supporting the fire department position.
“I think public safety well I know it’s up there at the top of priorities and with the increased call volumes and stress and all that stuff, it has to be paid for,” Norheim said. “I mean I feel like it’d be incredibly irresponsible at this point to not do it and maybe there’s a different solution to this but that’s later on down the road. And I just think it’s been kicked off for too long and to keep ignoring it is irresponsible.”
The assembly passed a budget for this year that includes funding for both the fire department job and a second sergeant’s position in the police department. However in July a shorthanded assembly voted against filling them over concerns for future state spending cuts. Mayor Mark Jensen still has those concerns.
“I’m kind of on the fence on how to vote on this,” Jensen said, adding, “I’m probably will not support this because I don’t know if this is something we’re going to be able to fund in perpetuity, unless we decide to cut somewhere else from our budget. I’m just worried that at some point we’re going to be out of money.”
The vote was 6-1 for the fire fighter/EMS coordinator with mayor Jensen the only no vote.
Meanwhile, the police sergeant’s job is not a new one, but it’s one the borough looked at eliminating with the budget crunch in the past year. The assembly’s July decision prompted the police chief to announce his department would no longer offer 24/7 coverage by his officers because of a staffing shortage. Chief Jim Kerr tried again to convince the assembly to approve the hire.
“You guys pay us to do our job to the best of our ability and these positions are basically us telling you we need this to do our job to the best of our ability,” Kerr told the assembly.
Officers have been working overtime with that job unfilled, going over that budgeted amount by around 60,000 dollars a year ago.
Assembly member Chelsea Tremblay attending by phone thought the state was entering a new era with the departure of Donna Arduin, the director of the state’s office of management and budget.
“Where maybe at the state level they can think less about the false sense of financial bankruptcy and really come to terms with the actual moral bankruptcy of asking communities like our to make these kind of tough decisions,” Tremblay said. “So these are budgeted positions that I’m excited to support and I’m thankful that we’re coming to this discussion again.”
The governor and state legislators have signaled they expect further budget cuts next year. Assembly member Bob Lynn was concerned with another increase in property taxes next summer if the state eliminates school bond debt reimbursement.
“If we lose, we have to pay the school bond debt, I’m not in favor of raising taxes in service area one at all,” Lynn said. “That’s a five percent hit. So if we approve this I’ll be very interested to see how much, what we’re willing to cut in order to make things balance here, if we approve this.”
Lynn joined Jensen in voting against the police sergeant hire but it passed on a 5-2 vote. The police job is expected to cost around 127,000 dollars in salary and benefits while the fire department job could cost around 94,000 dollars annually.