Village trustees trim full-time fire dept. staff

After voters approve property tax reduction, board is forced to make staffing cuts

BELLOWS FALLS — Faced with cutting $241,290 from the fiscal year 2018 village budget, the village trustees unanimously voted on Aug. 9 to eliminate four full-time positions from the Bellows Falls Fire Department.

Also at the special meeting, trustees voted to not hire the 10th officer slated to be added to the police department as a hedge against overtime expenses; to not buy any new vehicles for the water and sewer departments for FY18; and to cut their stipends for serving on the board down to zero.

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.

“Through this process, we are going to do our best to make sure that services [continue, but] we're going to feel a difference,” said Trustee President Myles Mickle. “This isn't going to be something that we take pleasure in. We live here ourselves. We don't want a reduction in services, but we're going to try to get through this process this year as well as we can.”

The trustees had very little wiggle room in reducing the budget. Interim Municipal Manager Shane O'Keefe said the police and fire departments constitute 89 percent of the village budget.

The fire department cuts, which Keefe said will save about $165,000, were the most controversial. They now leave the department with just two part-time firefighters and 12 to 15 on-call firefighters.

Donna Cenate, spouse of Deputy Fire Chief Steven Cenate, asked the trustees if they consulted with the police and fire departments while making its decision to cut the full-time firefighters.

“Are you just going to wing it?” she asked.

Mickle replied that they had taken the recommendations of O'Keefe, who had been in contact with the departments.

“You're making a huge mistake,” Brad Reed from the Professional Firefighters of Vermont, the union that represents the full-time firefighters, told the trustees.

“Just keep in mind that you are eliminating the jobs of four people who have families in this area, who are some of the lowest paid firefighters in the state of Vermont. ... They're not doing this job because they want to get rich. They're doing it because they love their community.”

Deputy Fire Chief Cenate asked why his department was taking the brunt of the cuts.

“Is this [part of] the ongoing desire to get rid of the career people in the Bellows Falls Fire Department?” he asked.

Trustee Deborah Wright said the decision “was not about personalities. We did this with input from our attorney.”

Mickle said that, in deciding what will happen to the fire department going forward, the village is working within the time frame of the 120 days of notice that unionized employees are required to receive when they are laid off.

Trustee Steve Adams expressed his frustration over the cuts, and blamed years of inaction by the village for being forced to make them now.

“We've put ourselves here,” Adams said. “It's a lack of vision for, collectively, the past 20 years. We only have cost centers in this village. We don't generate revenue any other way. We put ourselves in this place and, unfortunately, we are at the point where we have to make a shitty decision for the village.”

But that sentiment wasn't shared by everyone. Village resident Eleanor Landry said she was watching meeting on Falls Area Community Television, and was so upset that she had to rush down to the Town Hall to offer her thoughts.

She said her property tax bill this year on her home near Minard's Pond is $7,160, an amount she can no longer afford.

“You've got to do something,” she told the trustees. “You've got to cut from wherever, and never mind other people.”

The cuts were ultimately made, but there still is a lot of planning to be done, according to Trustee James McAuliffe.

“We're going into unexplored territory,” McAuliffe said. “The community of Bellows Falls put us in this position, and they're going to have to step up and help us solve this problem.”

The trustees agreed to create a fire implementation committee to figure out how the transition to a mostly-volunteer fire department will take place.

With the cuts, the trustees approved a new village tax rate of $0.6727 per $100 of assessed property value.

More potential cuts are expected to be discussed at the quarterly joint board meeting with the Rockingham Selectboard on Aug. 29.

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