CHINA NEWS: Chief scolds selectmen on proposed stipend article

by Mary Grow

China selectmen met with representatives of the town’s three fire departments and China Rescue March 20 to discuss the emergency services stipends proposed in the March 25 town meeting warrant – an action South China Fire Chief Richard Morse told them they should have taken weeks earlier. Art. 20 in the town meeting warrant asks voters to appropriate up to $40,000 from the town’s Unrestricted Fund Balance (surplus) to compensate emergency services personnel according to a policy to be developed by the selectmen.

Morse said the first time he heard about the proposed stipends was when a reporter called to ask his opinion. He said making the idea public with no advance notice to the department chiefs, no plan, no basis for the amount of money proposed and no evidence of need was “not a way to move a policy forward.”

Stipends, he believes, will not help increase membership in the fire departments or China Rescue. People join from a sense of pride, a desire to be part of a well-run organization and interest in community service. They are discouraged not by money issues but by too much state-mandated paperwork and training, not all of it relevant to part-time volunteer groups.

Despite his reservations, Morse said, he held a vote: his department members do not support stipends for town firefighters, but they do for China Rescue members, who get many more calls.

Morse recommended discussion among selectmen and emergency services people and development of a plan for sharing funds before a town meeting vote.

China Village Fire Chief Timothy Theriault was more inclined to go ahead now. His department members all voted in favor of stipends except himself, he said. To support them, he researched other towns’ plans for distributing funds and came up with a preliminary plan to discuss with his China colleagues.

“We have something to work on,” he said in answer to the claim that there is no plan for spending the funds if they’re approved. Theriault cited two examples from his experience which made it clear to him that earning money is one of the incentives that lead firefighters to remain active.

He sees the stipends, if voters approve, as an experiment; if after a trial he does not have more department members or higher turnout at fires, he will oppose continuing the program. Taking this year’s money from surplus instead of from taxes is consistent with the idea of an experiment, he said.

David Herard, speaking for China Rescue, said rescue members believe money might help keep members, but is unlikely to help with recruiting new ones.

Weeks Mills Fire Chief Webb Shaw was unable to attend the March 20 meeting, but Herard said the majority of that department favor stipends.

Theriault and Morse both said they repeatedly invited selectmen to meet with emergency services people to better understand the services’ needs and were repeatedly turned down, usually on the ground that selectmen’s meetings must be public. Perhaps, they suggested, one or two selectmen could be appointed a subcommittee.

Board Chairman Neil Farrington eloquently praised emergency responders who serve the community. Art. 20, he said, lets departments decide how to divide up stipend money, and doesn’t require everyone to accept it. Since the appropriation, if approved, won’t be available until July 1, there is time to develop plans.

“Let’s give it a chance,” he urged.


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