Chester board questions Fire Department expenditures

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

With nearly all the income and expense for 2015 accounted for, the Chester Select Board used a short special meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 30, to move another step closer to finalizing a 2016 budget proposal to present to voters at Town Meeting in March.

Town Manager David Pisha outlined the surpluses in the general fund including a large one in public works created by the mild late fall and early winter weather. Pisha cautioned, however, that nearly $50,000 of the surplus was a bill for paving Depot Street that has not been received yet. Because Chester operates on a cash basis, that bill will have to be paid in the 2016 budget.

Chester resident Suzy Forlie asked if the town had applied to Preservation Trust of Vermont for a grant to do an assessment of the Town Hall and what amount had been put aside in the capital budget to cover the work that needs to be done. Assistant to the town manager Julie Hance said that a grant application had been sent to PTV and that the town had set aside $20,000 for work on Whiting Library and $5,000 for Town Hall.

The board then unanimously decided to earmark $15,000 more for Town Hall.

Board chair John DeBenedetti noted that a raise for Select Board (to $1,500 from $1,100 per year) recommended by the town’s elected auditors was still in the budget but should be removed if the budget is too far out of balance. The auditors are the only ones who have the power to raise the Select Board’s pay, but the board need not take the suggestion and may cut a raise from the budget. Ironically, it was nearly two years ago that the Select Board considered eliminating the local auditors in favor of outside auditors.

While the budget discussions are more settled this year than in the past, the board had a number of questions about both the capital and operating budgets of the Fire Department.

Fire Department costs rise with number of calls

Board member Arne Jonynas asked Fire Chief Matt Wilson about the rise in the department’s operating costs, noting that the payroll was high. Wilson told the board that the number of calls in 2015 had risen to 182 from 166 the previous year and 96 four years ago. “One of those calls was a two-and-a-half day brush and forest fire and the other was a five-day missing person search,” said Wilson. “Those two calls accounted for about 25 percent of our payroll.

Jonynas wondered if the pay structure had changed. Wilson said it had not, but that the department was now picking up the cost of training firefighters rather than asking them to pay for their own training. He noted that the town was also absorbing the cost of lodging when firefighting courses were far away from home.

Turning to the capital request, Jonynas asked why the town should spend $40,000 on hoses all at once.

Wilson told the board that 90 percent of the department’s hose was manufactured before 1987 and therefore does not meet industry standards. He added that a blowout with one of these hoses would leave the town liable for the injury or death of a firefighter.

“Safety always comes up, and I understand that,” said Jonynas. “But this isn’t a big city department. We can’t operate with a wish mentality.”

Wilson responded: “I would argue every day that these are not wish things.”

Jonynas pointed to the new turnout gear for all firefighters that was donated to the department by Raymond Dalio in honor of Harry Goodell’s retirement from the fire service, suggesting that Wilson could have asked for something else when the current gear are still useable.

In an interview on Tuesday, Wilson told the Telegraph that Dalio’s parameters for the donation were that the department purchase something that would benefit the town, that the department would never be able to buy and that would be “extravagant.” “We gave him a list of things including the washer/dryer for turnout gear, a new jaws of life and even a ladder truck,” said Wilson. “But it was his choice.” The donation was received by the Yosemite Engine Company which does fund raising for the fire department.

Staying with turnout gear, board member Heather Chase asked about the need for a washer and dryer for the department’s fire firefighting gear. According to Wilson, turnout gear that has been in a fire is covered with chemical contaminants that come from burning modern building materials and that those chemicals can stay in a commercial washer and end up contaminating the public’s wash.

Returning to the high costs of firefighting, Jonynas suggested that in the future towns would need to look at regional fire department that could share things like thermal cameras and other items.

Wilson told the board that in a fire emergency, firefighters can’t wait for another department to deliver equipment that should be on the truck.

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