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‘We have to make this work’

Bellows Falls Fire Dept. transitions to volunteer staffing

BELLOWS FALLS—A month after the Bellows Falls Fire Department was forced to lay off four firefighters, the remaining staff are doing the best they can to serve the town, but it’s not a perfect scenario, BFFD Chief Shaun McGinnis told The Commons.

Last August, the village trustees unanimously voted to eliminate four full-time positions from the department.

Village voters in May originally passed a $1,998,070 budget, with $1,941,290 to be raised through property taxes. However, a petition drive successfully forced a revote, and voters on July 20 passed a village budget that would raise only $1.7 million through taxes.

That left the trustees with the job of finding $241,290 to cut. Because the police and fire departments constitute 89 percent of the village budget, they had few options. To meet voters’ demands, trustees cut the four firefighters, reduced the budgets of the police and water and sewer departments, and eliminated trustee stipends.

But the village trustees aren’t done yet.

At the Nov. 28, 2017 meeting, the trustees passed two motions: investigate the process of dissolving the BFFD, and direct the Municipal Manager, Shane O’Keefe, to research and submit a report on how to achieve that. O’Keefe’s report would also include details on transferring all BFFD assets and liabilities to the Town of Rockingham.

And what if Rockingham doesn’t want to take over the BFFD? O’Keefe told trustees that when he raised the possibility at a Rockingham Selectboard meeting, members weren’t ready to make that decision.

Adequate staffing?

In his Dec. 15 report, Dissolution of Bellows Falls Fire Department, O’Keefe raised a number of issues, including whether the Rockingham Volunteer Fire Department has adequate staffing to cover Bellows Falls, what to do with the building and apparatus, how to restructure the area’s mutual aid system, and whether the village can gain federal authorization for transferring grant-funded equipment.

The BFFD’s current staff includes McGinnis, who is employed full-time as chief, and 25 on-call members. Before the budget cuts eliminated firefighters, the roster was as follows: one 24/7 person on a rotating schedule, a Monday-Friday deputy chief from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., a night coverage person from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. every day, and approximately 20 on-call members.

McGinnis said there was a misconception among some townspeople “that everyone here was paid” and all firefighters “had to take the money” when they reported to a call. “Some were paid, but some didn’t put in time sheets,” he said, because they loved fighting fires and donated their time.

He believes some townspeople had no idea the cuts would affect the fire department the way it did. At the July meeting where voters demanded the budget reduction, “nobody knew what those cuts would be. At the time, they just said, ‘You cut $240,000 out of the budget, and you figure it out,’” he said.

“I’ve heard over and over again that people were genuinely surprised at the way things came down,” McGinnis said. “People didn’t think it would all come from the fire department.”

McGinnis lives in Bellows Falls. He noted that, with the $241,290 reduction in the budget, his property taxes went down by $120 this year.

According to information supplied by O’Keefe, for homeowners with an assessed property value of $150,000, the budget cuts saved them $137 for the year, or $34.25 per quarter. For a home valued at $200,000, the savings were $183, or $45.75 per quarter.

“I voted for the original budget. For me, for [a difference of] $120 per year, why not keep it the way it was!” McGinnis said.

’A lot of pride’

McGinnis, who has served on the BFFD since 1995, said he and his staff will do their best with what they have.

“There’s a lot of pride in this department,” he said.

“Moving forward, as a person who lives in the village and cares deeply about this department, we have to figure it out,” McGinnis said. “It’s not that we want to make this work, we have to make this work.”

So far, he said, the BFFD’s response time to recent major fires has been “pretty typical.” The Dec. 11 fire at Deborah and Cass Wright’s house had a nine minute response time, and the department arrived at the Dec. 15 fire on Lockwood Street in seven minutes, McGinnis said.

Deborah Wright, a village trustee, supported cuts to the BFFD, and at the August meeting told former Deputy Fire Chief Steven Cenate the decision “was not about personalities. We did this with input from our attorney.”

“We were lucky” with those two fires, McGinnis said, “because of the close proximity of our guys” to the locations. Plus, he noted, even though some firefighters enjoy outdoor winter activities such as snowmobiling, most stay home.

But, he said, “we’re in the honeymoon period. People want to make it work. But, what about summer when everybody wants to go ride their motorcycles? How will we cover vacations? We want to make sure it doesn’t happen that nobody’s here taking those calls.”

McGinnis said he will do his best to cover his staff’s vacations himself. “I want to be here all the time, but there’s limits to that. You can’t burn yourself out.”

He expressed empathy for cash-strapped voters. “I understand people’s need to save money, so I won’t sit here and say they’re making a bad decision,” said McGinnis. “I’ve always tried to listen to everyone’s concerns. You have to see both sides and understand everyone’s predicament.”

McGinnis was adamant about not wanting to alarm people, “but, I’m worried it may get worse,” he said.

“I don’t want the ‘spin’ on it to be that everything’s going to be okay. You don’t know what’s going to happen,” McGinnis said. “We have been extremely lucky, but it’s a matter of time that something happens that’s not in our favor.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #442 (Wednesday, January 17, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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