DUMMERSTON—Members of the West Dummerston Fire Department submitted a petition to the Town Clerk on May 11 to call a Special Town Meeting to decide if taxpayers will help fund construction of a new firehouse.
Although Selectboard members all agree they support their local volunteer fire department, how to pay for the project was the subject of extended debate at the April 13 and 27 regular Board meetings.
Last year, Fire Chief Rick Looman told the Selectboard his department is in dire need of a new Central Fire Station.
“We have a fire truck in our department that cannot fit in our own firehouse,” Looman told the Board in July. He explained that changes in emissions and safety regulations have increased truck sizes, and the station on East-West Road no longer fully serves the department’s needs.
Looman and Assistant Chief Rich Cogliano appeared at the April 13 regular Board meeting to ask for a Special Town Meeting. The two firefighters told town officials the estimated cost of the project is $250,000 to $280,000, which includes demolishing the current fire station, performing site work, and constructing a new building.
“We will contribute $105,000 of that total cost,” which represents just under 40 percent of the high-end estimate, Cogliano said. That $105,000 will come from Fire Department fundraising. Department officials’ hope is that the townspeople approve appropriating the remaining $175,000 toward the project.
The firefighters told Board members they wanted to get the project moving along quickly. Their goal is to have construction complete by this October’s apple pie festival. Every year, the day’s festivities begin with the Fire Department’s well-attended and lucrative annual pancake breakfast fundraiser in the fire station. According to Lester Dunklee, who serves on the department, the pancake breakfast takes in about $3,000 each year and serves about 550 people.
Cogliano expressed his hope for a Special Town Meeting some time between May 16 and 27 so construction could begin in June or July.
Whence the funding?
But the department’s timeline was challenged by Board Vice-Chair Steve Glabach, and the Selectboard declined to approve the department’s request for a Special Town Meeting.
“Why is there no capital fund drive?” Glabach asked Cogliano and Looman.
The two volunteer firefighters assured Glabach that although they had no formal capital fund drive, they have held — and will hold — a variety of other fundraising events to raise the money.
“What if the townspeople say, ‘no,’” to the funding request, Glabach asked Cogliano and Looman. He suggested they conduct a capital fund drive and secure contributions from the department’s trustees and officers “before going to the taxpayers."
“I’d like to see that first,” Glabach said.
“Our members put in hundreds of hours a year for nothing,” Cogliano replied, adding, “all of our families have done something,” even if that does not include “putting in hundreds of thousands of dollars."
“We all have our families and full-time jobs,” Cogliano said, and “we give in other ways — we do a huge community service."
“None of us are professional fundraisers,” he added.
At the April 13 and April 27 meetings, Board members discussed advice gathered from professional fundraisers about how the Fire Department should get its own members to contribute money first.
During the latter meeting, Board Chair Zeke Goodband offered a reminder.
Not paid employees, but volunteers
“My wife is a professional fundraiser. She’s dealing with organizations where everyone is getting paid [and] all the paid employees kick in some money” toward the goal, Goodband said.
“[The firefighters] are not paid employees. They’re volunteers,” he said, noting he would rather the firefighters not wear themselves out trying to be professional fundraisers “and kick back resting so they can be fresh to come put out my chimney fire."
Goodband then offered to write an individual contribution check for each firefighter.
“I’ll write the check for them. How much do you want, ten bucks from them?” he asked.
Board member Hugh Worden noted the department’s success in raising almost 40 percent of the project’s estimated costs.
“What they do [as volunteer firefighters] is sufficient to me to say they’re invested in getting this built,” Worden added.
He also pointed out the demands of the accelerated deadline for completing the new building, and said he “does not understand the problem” with asking the townspeople to appropriate the funding because they already give the Fire Department $80,000 each year for operating expenses.
“Sometimes you just need to press ahead,” Worden said.
‘It’s a gray area’
While the fire department awaits its nonprofit 501(c)3 designation, some town officials have been trying to get an answer to the question, Can the town accept tax-deductible donations on the Fire Department’s behalf? If so, how can they transfer the money?
At the April 27 Board meeting, Glabach reported on the research he had done in the previous two weeks: He contacted Bob Fisher, Dummerston’s town attorney, and William Hall, senior financial consultant with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT). In November, former Town Clerk Pam McFadden and former Treasurer (and current Town Clerk) Laurie Frechette also contacted officials with the VLCT and attorney Michael McGillion with Fisher’s office.
Documents from the Town Clerk’s office show that the answers they received weren’t always in agreement with answers from other parties, supporting Glabach’s description of the issue: “it’s a gray area... and it continues to get more gray the more you look into it."
Because the Fire Department is independent and isn’t owned by the town, but the town contributes to its operating costs, and, as Glabach said, “the town is required... to provide health and safety of our residents,” he said it is unclear whether the town can collect donations on the department’s behalf and appropriate funds for their building.
Other complications include how to guarantee a bank loan for the station’s construction, and the possibility that Fisher may have to work with a VLCT attorney to write the meeting warning and article for the funding request, Glabach said.
“This is getting overly complicated,” Worden said.
If at first you don’t succeed, file a petition
Just because the Selectboard declined Looman and Cogliano’s request for a Special Town Meeting at the April 13 meeting doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road for a new firehouse.
Title 24, Chapter 37, of Vermont statute says if 5 percent of the town’s registered voters sign a petition requesting a Special Town Meeting, the Selectboard will call the meeting.
So, the fire department circulated the petition and received the requisite number of signatures.
Town Clerk Laurie Frechette confirmed in an email to The Commons the fire department’s petition “had 121 valid signatures; 85 were required."
“We will be consulting with the VLCT, the Secretary of State’s Office and our Town Attorney between now and the next Selectboard meeting on May 25,” Town Clerk Laurie Frechette wrote.
In a follow-up email to The Commons, Worden said he would support a warrant to raise the remaining funds once all other funding sources have been exhausted. He added, “Once we have done everything we can to raise funds and if a shortfall still exist[s] I am confident our residents will be supportive of covering that shortfall."