UPDATED 6:22 P.M.
Residents of South Tewksbury, unhappy that the South Fire Station was closed for two months last summer, are going to be much less happy this year.
Due to a proposed 18 percent cut in the Fire Department operating budget, South Station will close and remain closed until September.
"South Station will be closed for about six months," said Fire Chief Richard Mackey, in a recent interview. "We knew for some time that it would have to be closed for a longer period that last year. We had hoped to keep it open until April 1 but now it looks like mid-March."
In fact, due to growing overtime expenditures this winter, it was announced Tuesday that the South Station would close immediately as a cost-saving measure.
As department heads prepared their Fiscal Year 2012 Budget requests, Town Manager Richard Montuori directed them to slice 10 percent from their operating budgets. In the case of the Fire Department, Montuori then cut a little more, in order to help balance the budget. In all, the Fire Department's operating budget is being cut by $52,099, from $287,480 to $235,044.
The total FY '12 budget for the department, including salaries, is $4,285,697.
The closing of the South Station, one of three stations in the town, will be the biggest impact of the Fire Department budget cuts and the one that will be most obvious to residents in terms of service. According to Mackey, the overtime budget will be significantly cut but there will be no layoffs.
"We won't be cutting any positions," said Mackey. "In fact, we have three vacancies in the department right now that we expect to be able to fill in the fall."
The department presently has a staff of 51, including the chief and the department secretary. Mackey says that's less personnel than when he joined the department in 1979 and significantly less than the 59-person staff in the early 1990s.
There are usually 12 firefighters on duty for each shift. that number will decrease with the closing of South Station. However, Mackey says there is still sufficient staffing to staff the department's vehicles, including two ambulances. He said he is helped tremendously in terms of staffing flexibility by the fact that his firefighters are all trained and certified to man the ambulances.
"My biggest thing is that we be able to meet the multiple call volume and (respond to simultaneous calls)," said Mackey. But he admits that any deeper cuts in the future would put that ability in jeopardy.
But the Fiscal Year 2013 Budget will be someone else's problem. Mackey, who has been chief since 2004, will be retiring this summer. He admits this final budget has been a challenge but says he is pleased with how the department has been treated by the residents of the town and by Montouri.
Last year, voters approved a new engine for the department, which went into service in January. It replaced a 26-year-old vehicle.
"It was our first new engine in eight or nine years," said Mackey.
And while Montouri made additional cuts to the department operating budget, he also made an exception to the freeze on capital expenditures to allow for the purchase of a new ambulance.