by Sheldon Goodine
54-year member of the SCVFD, Inc., and retired chief
Two years ago the selectboard discussed a stipend for the firefighters. They did this without any input from the three fire chiefs or department members. When it was brought to our attention the members of the South China Volunteer Fire Department said we don’t need it and don’t want it. But, it was put on the town warrant at town meeting and the voters approved the expenditure unanimously. Turns out this just became a carrot on a stick for the selectboard. It was just one little way for the selectboard to gain some control over the volunteer fire departments.
Next they wanted us to open our books so they could see how much money we earned from fundraisers, and wanted to deduct this amount from our annual budget request. Let’s see how that might work out. If our budget request was for $20,000 and our annual auction netted $4,000, the selectboard wants to only give us $16,000. But, if we did not raise $4,000 from a fundraiser, our budget request would be $24,000. Duh!
Budget request for this year – The selectboard wanted to cut the amount requested, but the budget committee voted for the total amount presented to the town. At the town meeting the voters upped the requested amount by $7,000 and it was approved unanimously. This brought the amount appropriated up to the amount requested by the fire departments. This turned out to be a stinging blow to the selectboard, and they are now trying everything they can do to try to gain control of the volunteer fire departments. In June, I’ll start my 60th year as a volunteer firefighter, and during that time I have only received two stipend checks. I will continue to receive the yearly stipend check, but will turn it over to the department to use as needed. I joined as a volunteer and will continue to do so.
Time spent work as a firefighter – Both the chief and deputy chief of the SCVFD, Inc., will put in more hours individually in a month’s time than the entire selectboard members will put in collectively in a full year. When an alarm comes in and a chief officer arrives on the scene to take command, he has to make life or death decisions at any moment. He has the authority to shut down power lines, close roads, and use any available equipment that is located near the scene as needed. None of the selectboard members has that authority.
Money management – For 70 years of our 72-year history, the SCVFD, Inc., has built a new station and bought several trucks over the years. When we backed our four trucks into the new station, we owed nothing on the building and everything in it. We look for and apply for grants as they become available. Our newest truck was awarded to us from a grant for which we applied. We had in our equipment savings account enough money for our share of this equipment. This truck was around $202,000 and the cost to the town of China was $0. However, nothing is for free so as a federal taxpayer, you may have spent a fraction of a penny on the new truck. How is that for money management?
Emergency Services Building – The selectboard wants to have a town-owned fire station at the north end of town. Let’s look at this idea. A new fire station for five or six trucks would cost $3 – 4 million. Five or six trucks would cost about half a million dollars each. The town of China is unique in that we have four villages in the town and have fire chiefs located in three of these villages. The fourth depends on help from Palermo just across the town line. Travel time spent going to the north end of town before a response can even begin has the potential of causing more loss of life and property damage. Many of the newer buildings are using new building materials that burn faster and with higher heat. Maybe in years to come this will happen but then firefighters will need to be in the building 24/7. What will happen to property insurance for folks not living near a fire department: their insurance premiums will skyrocket.
The three departments combined have available 65 firefighters and 14 trucks. The reports in the town report show that South China responded to 88 calls; China Village 82 calls; and Weeks Mills 56 calls, for a total of 226 calls. This is not a true total as on a lot of these calls all departments showed up as mutual aid. China Rescue responded to 263 calls.
Operating budget – Try operating a company of 24 people and five trucks on a budget of $24,000 annually – it is impossible! But not for volunteers. That’s what we do now. Compare this to the rates and costs of operating a municipal fire department.
The way I see it, it’s not the money or how it is spent that is the problem for the selectboard. The selectboard just wants to have total power and control.
I want to thank the taxpayers of the town of China for their past support of the volunteer fire departments and pray that it will continue. However, the actions of the selectboard may have opened a can of worms that will discourage the will to volunteer and has the potential of costing the town millions of dollars.
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