Montpelier Fire Department budget spat heats up
By David Taube
STAFF WRITER | January 26,2013
MONTPELIER — Firefighters protested a potential reduction to their department and voiced dismay over last-minute motions Thursday as City Council members cross-examined one another and firefighters over the city budget.
After its final public hearing Thursday, the council approved a $7,145,818 operating budget. If approved by voters in March, the budget would increase the municipal tax rate about 2 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
At the nearly six-hour meeting, several residents voiced concerns. At times, the council seemed confused on how to proceed.
A city firefighter-led effort garnered more than 840 signatures before a Thursday deadline to put a question on the March ballot asking that one proposed unfilled vacancy be funded with $54,669. Due to invalid signatures, the group was one of several ballot petitioners that barely had enough signatures to put their measures before voters, City Clerk John Odum said Thursday before the meeting. The firefighters’ petition qualified by three votes, he said.
A memo from City Manager William Fraser had identified the effect the added salary item would have on the tax rate. A City Council directive, however, sought to keep the tax rate increase within the rate of inflation. In the Jan. 18 memo, Fraser suggested one possibility was to reduce the overall budget by $54,669 to offset the increase.
The board did just that, but community members, firefighters and multiple City Council members suggested the reduction was inconsistent with the democratic ballot petition process. City Council members Angela MacDonald-Timpone and Anne Watson said they felt uncomfortable with the board’s move. Council member Alan Weiss said the board action circumvented the intent of the article.
“I have a real problem with this. This is democracy. We have a petition process,” MacDonald-Timpone said. “I understand it’s going against our regular budgeting process, but they went to the voters.”
Mayor John Hollar, however, said the petition undermined the integrity of the budget process and could set a dangerous precedent, making the council fall to the whim of outside groups seeking to control municipal staffing levels as well as the popularity of individuals or programs.
Other board members said despite the support from the petition, not everyone in the community was in favor of the move. City Council member Tom Golonka said city firefighter Welcker Taylor was looking at the issue “in a vacuum” and the entire budget had to be taken into consideration. Board members also said no one wanted to make the cuts and if every city spending item were voted on individually, no one would be against any single issue.
Taylor, who gave a brief slideshow presentation to the board with another firefighter, disagreed.
“This seems crazy to me. That you are even entertaining this motion seems so wrong,” Taylor said. “This is what you signed up to do. You really wanted to be elected to the City Council, so you could not listen to what the majority of people want?”
Many community members spoke against the proposed firefighter reduction. Resident Vicki Lane, who was watching the meeting at home and drove to City Hall and knocked on the building’s locked doors until someone let her in, said she would have petitioned to keep the police, public works and fire staffers if she had known residents could do so.
The motion to approve the reduction went to a 3-3 tie, with MacDonald-Timpone, Watson and Weiss opposed. Hollar broke the tie, approving the reduction.
As the second budget hearing was occurring and, at some points, seeming to go nowhere, the council noted the budget amount had to be approved so a warning notice could be placed for Town Meeting Day.
The ballot item states the firefighter position is needed to maintain current safety levels.
On Friday, Fire Chief Bob Gowans said the proposed reduction would not affect initial response time. He said it could affect response times on second calls — if firefighting or ambulance officials are out and have a second call while the first call is still happening.
Gowans said the department currently has a three-person crew four nights a week and four-person crew three nights a week. Under the proposed cut, a three-person crew will work five nights a week and a four-person crew will be on two nights a week.
“What allowed me to feel comfortable going forward was the fact that we were not creating a … new staffing situation that did not already exist on three other nights of the week,” Fraser said at the meeting. “We had proven that we can do it. We understand the risks of it, and we know there is going to be times that there might be a delay on second call.”
Hollar said the reduction would affect 10 calls of some 2,000 responses each year. The calculation stems from 52 “simultaneous” or second calls in 2012, Gowans said.
The city budget as proposed includes four full-time and a part-time elimination. As part of that, a fire department billing administrator is eligible for retirement but has not yet indicated plans to do so, Gowans said. The question that has spurred controversy is how the department will replace a lieutenant supervisor who’s involved in responding to fires and will retire this summer.
The department has two operations officers who respond to fires and have side duties: One, which is Taylor’s position, leads school outreach and grant-writing, and the other maintains the department’s equipment. The department has not yet formalized how the lieutenant supervisor’s position will be filled, Gowans said.
If the ballot item to keep the firefighter passes, the city would not have to reinstate the proposed cut, Fraser said Friday.
Responding to the $54,699 reduction, MacDonald-Timpone made a motion to restore funding for three proposed job eliminations, covering a police officer, public works staffer and firefighter.
The board rejected her motion.
Also during the meeting, the council approved putting a ballot question to city residents about creating a downtown improvement district, with an additional tax on downtown commercial properties. Montpelier Alive, which put forth the plan, had estimated the tax rate increase would be 4.5 cents per $100 of assessed property value. For properties with residential use, the assessment would be pro-rated.
The tax would raise $75,000, and a committee would oversee the money to market the downtown and make streetscape improvements. The City Council would appoint the committee members.