Fire departments split on merger

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 2/23/2019 10:07:43 PM

WEATHERSFIELD — After months of discussion and debate — and years of what has been described as a divisive relationship involving the town’s two volunteer fire departments, the fire commission and Selectboard — voters will decide on Town Meeting Day whether to consolidate the departments under a single, town-run fire department with a full-time fire chief.

“It is kind of split,” Town Manager Ed Morris said recently when asked whether he sees strong support or opposition for the proposal. “It is a big change, and there are a lot of opinions. We are doing our best to get the best information out there.”

West Weatherfield’s fire department is 100 percent in favor of the change and were the catalyst for the Selectboard to move forward with a proposal last year after a consultant’s reported concluded it was the best option for the town. In Ascutney, Chief Darrin Spaulding said on Friday his department opposes the change, but he referred all questions to association President Mark Girard, who did not return a phone message left Friday.

Voters are being asked to approve a $265,000 appropriation that Morris said would cover the annual salary and benefits of a full-time chief — a first for Weathersfield — as well as all operational expenses of a single fire department. That figure is nearly identical to the combined expenses of the Ascutney Volunteer Fire Department and the West Weathersfield Volunteer Fire Department, based on a fiscal study done in 2017, Morris said.

The big difference is that the town is seeking $245,000 in taxes to cover the town-run department, which is about $65,000 more than the taxes that supported the volunteer departments each of the last two years.

On Saturday, about 30 people, including firefighters, attended an informational session put on by the West Weathersfield Department.

West Weathersfield Chief Josh Dauphin said a single department with a full-time chief will eliminate a lot of the discord that has existed over the years between the departments but more importantly, it would allow firefighters to focus on what they do best: train and answer calls. A lot those duties, including maintenance, will shift to the chief.

“Our core active members can’t have an aggressive training schedule,” West Weathersfield firefighter Josh Compo said. “That should be our focus.”

Dauphin said shifting many of the duties that volunteers members are responsible for now to a full-time chief likely will improve the fire service.

“Let’s make this a better organization for the residents,” Dauphin said, who added that by cutting out some of the “drama” between departments, more volunteers may be inclined to step forward and serve.

A brochure handed out on Saturday and mailed to residents also said a single department would give the town 100 percent oversight of the fire department finances, which is not the case now even though taxpayers fund a portion of the expenses.

If voters say yes, Morris said, the overall town tax rate is projected to increase less than 1 cent per $100 of assessed valuation if all appropriations on the warning and the budget pass. The fire department article would add 2 cents, but reductions and efficiencies in other spending reduces the overall tax impact to less than a penny, Morris said.

The idea for a single, town-run department with a full-time chief has been brewing for years, but it took on greater urgency after a report in 2015 by John Wood, a former Hartford Fire Chief and former Deputy Director of Deputy Commissioner of Vermont Public Safety, strongly recommended the change.

In a recent report written to residents that appears in this year’s town report, Selectboard Chairwoman Kelly Murphy quoted Wood’s conclusion that “the single department concept is the best practice for fire protection in the community” and “the most important reason for creating a single fire department is to reduce the risks of injury and death to firefighters, while enhancing fire protection in the community.”

Morris presented his recommendation for a single municipal department last September as the best option to address and solve the recommendations in Wood’s report. West Weathersfield’s membership quickly threw its support behind the change and has agreed, chief Dauphin said Friday, to turn all of its equipment over to the town if voters approve the appropriation for a single department.

Ownership of the building and land in Perkinsville would be retained by the department and leased to the town for a nominal fee, Dauphin said.

“We want to make this as easy as possible,” Dauphin said. “We are making every effort to try to promote this as something good for the town.”

In November, the Selectboard voted to create a municipal department and in early January voted again in support of a full-time chief as necessary to implement the change.

Murphy said that while the town will have to cover more of the expenses, a municipal department will eliminate “redundant operating expenses” and, just as important, eliminate the need for regular fundraising by volunteer firefighters to cover operations, a major complaint of the volunteers.

In Ascutney, the department owns the building but leases the land from the state. Like Weathersfield, ownership of the assets, including the trucks, is “intertwined,” Morris said. He said negotiations are continuing on how ownership of those assets, which include two engine trucks owned by the town and a ladder truck and a forestry truck owned by the department, are shared going forward.

Residents have two more opportunities to ask questions and express their opinion on the proposal: On Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in Martin Memorial Hall in a Selectboard meeting and again at the informational portion of the town meeting on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at the Weathersfield Elementary School.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached pogclmt@gmail.com.




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