Select Board sees Budget Committee’s proposed fire/rescue cut as unworkable, untimely, unwise

| Joanne Cole, NGX | If by proposing to cut some $200,000 from the fire/rescue budget, the budget committee hoped to get the select board’s attention and start a conversation, […]

| Joanne Cole, NGX |

If by proposing to cut some $200,000 from the fire/rescue budget, the budget committee hoped to get the select board’s attention and start a conversation, they succeeded.  Select board members at a March 2 budget workshop responded with list of concerns, including potential risks to personnel and patients, its timing, and its impact on department morale, among other issues.

The budget committee recommendation—not yet final—would reduce to $450,000 a fire/rescue account that clocked in at $648,000 in the select board’s initial draft budget. At a meeting last week, budget committee chair Peter Bragdon had proposed exploring having one firefighter/EMT on duty 24/7 at the station, instead of the current two, and an on-call member responding from home. In addition, instead of the town’s current in-house ambulance transport service, United Ambulance would be called in when needed.

Select board members took issue not only with the size of the cut, but also with the staffing and service model behind it. Select board member Karen Gilles expressed concern about the safety of both the patient and the EMT if only one person initially responds to a call.  How long might it take for a second responder to appear from home, she wondered, and what might happen in the meantime?  Board member Tammy Donovan agreed that there are “too many moving parts and pieces for a call to be successful” under that scenario.

Gilles also thought that the measure is ill-timed and changes should wait until after citizens have an opportunity to weigh in on whether or not they support the current level of service.  “I think it’s just really premature to have this conversation without having first going to the townspeople,” Gilles said, “because they did vote for this.”  She added: “We went through the whole process. It was painstaking.  We tried to present all the information the best that we could.”  Citizens should be given the option to answer the question, “‘Do you want this level of service or do you not?’ and then go from there,” she said. 

Donovan also thought a major change is premature.  “You really need data, at least a couple of years’, to ask ‘Is this working?’”  Interim town manager Paul First noted the investment made in people and equipment for the department’s current staffing and service.  “There’s a real cost that comes with changing direction,” he said.

That led Donovan and others to commend Chief Toby Martin for his hard work, finding savings, conducting trainings, building the junior program, and more.  George Colby cautioned about a “morale cost” as well as money costs with a change. 

First added that the timing of the proposed change is unfortunate for several reasons.  For one, a draft of an outside study of fire/rescue and public works has just landed on his desk.  For another, the results of the town’s property revaluation won’t be known until after town meeting and could boost the town’s overall financial picture, he said.   

For her part, select board chair Linda Chase struck a conciliatory note.  She acknowledged that fire/rescue, together with public works, represents a sizable piece of the budget, perhaps implying that it’s an understandable target for possible cuts.  She framed the overarching budget challenge for both the select board and the budget committee: “How do we find common ground where we can have the best services but also not drive the tax rate through the roof?”

Attention and the chance to respond to Chase’s question now shift back to the budget committee.  They meet on Thursday March 5 at 6:30 pm at the Meetinghouse to continue the budget conversation.