The China Board of Selectmen responds to “An open letter to China residents from the town’s fire chiefs” (Letter) printed in the March 14, 2019, issue of The Town Line.
Despite any assertions otherwise, the Board of Selectmen are not attempting to control the volunteer fire departments (VFDs) in China. As was correctly noted in the Letter, these are independent nonprofit corporations, organized under the authority of the Maine statutes. They are not municipal fire departments, so their requests for funding from the Town of China are similar to requests from other nonprofit organizations, such as the Red Cross, Meals-on-Wheels, etc. The only difference is the Maine statutes have this language, “The appropriation of money by a municipality toward the support of an organized firefighting unit incorporated under Title 13, chapter 81, or Title 13-B, is prima facie evidence of official recognition.” (30-A M.R.S. Sec. 3151(3)(B)) This means that a municipality does not require a written contract with these VFDs for them to operate in the town. In addition to the annual budget requests from the VFDs and the recommended stipend amounts, the town also provides insurance coverage for all VFD facilities and vehicles, which are their corporate assets (one fire vehicle may be owned by the town).
The Maine Municipal Association includes this guidance in their legal packet on fire protection (https://memun.org/Member-Center/Info-Packets-Guides/Fire-Protection): “…the municipal budgetary authority (town meeting or town or city council) may properly inquire about what other funds are available before appropriating public monies to support a separately incorporated volunteer fire department.” This appears intended to ensure that only those funds necessary to supplement the private funds of VFDs are appropriated from taxes paid by China residents. This should not be seen as the Select Board viewing “VFD fundraising dollars as a revenue stream for the town;” rather, it is a recognition that taxpayers in the municipality have a right to ensure they are only supplementing the needs of VFDs, not acting as the only funding source for their operations.
The Board of Selectmen does not have the authority to approve the annual budget; that is a function of the Annual Town Business Meeting, where the taxpayers decide on the budget. The Select Board and the Budget Committee deliberate independently and make their respective recommendations to the taxpayers in the annual warrant articles. It was during these deliberations that the Select Board saw what they viewed as “double-dipping” by the officers of the VFDs. In the VFDs’ report of how the mid-fiscal-year stipends were distributed at the end of 2018, the Select Board saw that one VFD paid out $3,720.00 to five officers and $1,310.00 to the other 11 members.
This department has a current fiscal year allocation for stipends of $8,360.80, meaning there is now $3,320.80 available for end-year stipends. This revealed a difference of understanding about how the stipends were to be distributed. The Select Board believed it was a set stipend for four officers in each VFD (chief, $1,000; assistant chief/captain, $500, lieutenant and secretary, $250 each) and the remainder was to be distributed to the other volunteers based on the level of participation. The VFD chiefs believed the officers should receive the set stipend and then share with all the other members in the remaining stipend money according to their participation in calls. This is where the Select Board and VFD chiefs are differing, and that is why the Select Board asked the town manager to present an alternative stipend plan, to stop the double-dipping (chief, $1,000; two officers, $500 each; $300 calculated for each additional volunteer).
The Select Board has requested for several years that the VFDs supply an annual corporate financial statement, just as they do with all other nonprofit corporations requesting town funds. The quarterly reports that the town manager receives from the VFDs help to show how the town’s funds are spent, but do not help the Select Board see whether the amount appropriated each year is the amount necessary to supplement the VFDs’ private funds for their operations and administration. This is not about “reducing VFD operations budget allocations,” but about keeping VFDs accountable to taxpayers.
Since August 2018, the VFDs have had a standing invitation with a spot on the Select Board meeting agenda to communicate with the Select Board about their activities. To date, none of the VFDs has participated in a Select Board meeting for other than a budget deliberation. We do not have a similar invitation for other nonprofit corporations that the town provides funding to, but we realize that the VFDs provide a vital service to our community, and we want to keep the door to communication open.
We are hopeful that the chiefs, officers, and members of the VFDs will see that we don’t want to control how they operate, but we do want to do our job to protect the taxpayers of our town. That is what we were elected to do and we will not back away from that responsibility. We want the stipend money to be shared fairly among the members of the VFDs. We commend the VFDs and their members for the work they do to provide firefighting services, and we look forward to moving past this unfortunate disagreement.
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