GROTON -- Faced with a conflict between public safety and saving money at the Fire Department, selectmen decided on a short-term solution to the problem while a sub-committee investigates the matter.
The issue arose near the end of the board's meeting Monday when member Jack Petropoulos questioned cuts in funding for the Fire Department by Town Manager Mark Haddad.
In a presentation, Petropoulos outlined events leading to Haddad's decision to limit how much Chief Joseph Bosselait could spend to cover overtime for five full-time firefighters.
According to Petropoulos, although Town Meeting voted to approve the overtime spending for fiscal 2014, Haddad directed Bosselait to not use overtime unless daytime staffing fell below two people.
From there, said Petropoulos, "Groton operated with unfilled shifts at a level that...jeopardizes public safety."
Petropoulos concluded his presentation with figures of response times to various emergencies and how much longer it would take than if the hours were staffed by full-time firefighters.
"This is not good stuff," said Petropoulos adding that such cuts in funding could not be made without Town Meeting approval and asked the board to vote in favor of restoring funding.
Haddad said he had asked the chief to "keep an eye on spending" after overtime money was being spent before a new contract was signed with the full-time firefighters.
"We really need to control the overtime," Haddad said that he had told the chief. "I had to make a decision."
Haddad told selectmen he had asked the same thing of the Police Department and received no complaints about endangerment to the public safety.
"I'm trying to control the budget," said Haddad. "And I stand by my decision."
Vice-Chairman Joshua Degen said it boiled down to public safety versus the budget.
Also in question was language in the Fire Department's union contract that gives the five full-time firefighters first refusal on any overtime hours at time and a half as opposed to bringing in one of the town's call firefighters who could fill the hours at less cost to the town.
"Public safety is number one to us and how we do that is the challenge," insisted Bosselait.
The chief added that Haddad's directive had affected the department's response times and that he was willing to see if another way could be found to address the problem.
"I think the problem is bigger than just a budgetary thing," said Bosselait.
"I see this as being multi-layered," said board member Anna Eliot about public safety, the budget, and the interests of the union. "I don't want (firefighters') dedication caught up in a money fight."
Eliot characterized the issue as the kind of "growing pains" experienced by a small town fire department transitioning to something bigger.
Looking over statistics provided by Petropoulos, member Stuart Schulman had questions about their meaning including the appearance that full-time firefighters were turning up missing for much of the times listed.
"We're running out of money because we're paying overtime virtually all the time," said Schulman adding he had more questions than answers. "There's something about this that doesn't add up."
Degen suggested the town resume the overtime payments while a subcommittee was formed to delve into the question and report back to the board by Jan. 27.
"I think we should jump on it right away," said Haddad.
Selectmen also moved to begin the earliest phase in their search for a new fire chief to replace Bosselait, who is retiring.
Describing the search process, Haddad said that under the town's Charter, he would conduct the initial search and whittle down the candidates to two finalists who would then be interviewed by the board.
As a first step, Haddad said he would meet with Fire Department employees to receive their input ahead of the formation of a search committee.
Haddad, Bosselait, two selectmen, Fire Department employees, residents and an outside fire chief suggested for membership.
Haddad said the entire search process should be "open and transparent," setting his meeting with department employees for Jan. 27.
In a letter submitted to the board last month, Bosselait, fire chief for the past 14 years, stated that it was his intention to resign his position when his current contract expires on June 30.
Also, the board:
* Delayed a vote on committing the town to paying $2,000 in permitting fees for developer Halsey Platt who has offered to buy the unused Squannacook Hall building for transformation into rental units and saving it from demolition. Platt's plan ran aground at last year's Town Meeting when residents turned down his concept plan, siding with the Christian Union Church who claimed his designs on the historic building would be a hardship for them. Platt has continued to talk with church members as well as the town's Affordable Housing Trust to try and come to a mutually beneficial solution to their differences. Hoping for the best, selectmen decided to postpone a vote on the permitting fees pending the outcome of the talks.
* Ratified the appointment of Dana Freeman as mechanic at the Pool and Golf Center.
* Ratified the appointment of Norman Robertson to a vacancy on the Finance Committee. The unfinished term is scheduled to end June 30, 2015.
* Voted to open the warrant for spring Town Meeting while setting the date as April 28.