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Changes to Fire Department Debated in Piermont

Piermont — The legal status of the fire department and whether the tax collector should be elected or appointed generated the liveliest exchanges at Town Meeting Tuesday night.

About 80 people attended the two-hour meeting in the Piermont Village School. In the only contest among town and School Board positions, Selectman Ernie Hartley won a three-year term over Teran “Terri” Mertz, 115-79. The Piermont School District meeting will be held on Tuesday, March 18, at 7:30 p.m. in the school.

One word — “reorganize” — in the warrant regarding the status of the fire department provoked a long discussion about what exactly was intended. The article requested a vote to “reorganize the fire department so that the firefighters are hired by the Board of Selectmen with the fire chief elected by the firefighters.”

Fireman Andy Mauchly said the wording of the entire article “is alarming and confusing. Does this mean the Selectboard is taking over, doing the hiring and firing or what? How does this article improve things? Why do we need to reorganize?”

Selectboard Chairman Bob Lang said the town attorney recommended that the step be taken.

“The fire department just grew from 1935 when the town purchased a fire truck,” he said. “But the department was never established legally.” He suggested that there was a need for stronger background checks on recruits to the department. “We want to make sure we don’t get any convicted felons or people with court actions,” Lang said. “The fact that we are on the border between New Hampshire and Vermont complicates things because each state has different standards.” This sparked a lengthy discussion about appropriate procedures for background checks and best practices in other states.

The article was voted down by voice vote.

George Mertz asked that the issue be “revisited” and offered an amendment to get around the “reorganization” formulation. The amendment stated simply that the “fire department will be organized in accordance with the laws of the state of New Hampshire.” It passed by a unanimous voice vote.

Another warrant article called for a change in the office of the town tax collector from an elected to an appointed position with appointment by the three-member Selectboard. Mertz challenged the rationale for this change, asking for clarification since he said state regulations with respect to tax collector positions are very clear.

“Yes, but we don’t have any control,” Selectman Colin Stubbings responded. “An elected individual can come and go as they wish, working an hour here and another there. With appointment, we have more control over their performance.”

Lang added that there had been a problem with late filing of more than $100,000 in property liens and “now we may have to go to small claims court and that is expensive and tedious. It is your money and we can make sure things get done properly through appointment.” The article was approved 42 to 26.

All other articles were approved, including the town budget of $914,000, which is about $9,000 more than last year. The result is that the town tax rate is expected to remain the same as last year’s — $6.91 on $1,000 of assessed value.

An article supporting a constitutional amendment regulating campaign spending was approved by unanimous voice vote. The author of the article, Steve Rounds, chairman of Piermont Democrats, said support for the amendment would “mean less money for elections in the long run and politicians would be less beholden to rich people.”

The meeting effectively marked the demise of the 144-year old Piermont Mutual Fire Insurance Co., which will legally go out of business at the end of March, according to John Metcalf, a company officer.

“During the 1920s, the company was issuing almost 200 policies a year,” he said. “Last year we had only 19, and we are limited to the kind of coverage we can provide — $10,000 maximum.” A total of about $105,000 in accumulated earnings are now being disbursed by the company to a variety of Piermont activities through creation of Expendable Trust Funds, several of which were in approved warrant articles. The special committee planning this year’s town 250th anniversary celebration received $5,000. Metcalf’s wife, Abby, is committee chairwoman. The committee hopes to raise about $10,000 through special dinners and sales of commemorative merchandise.

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