Controversial fire department article passes
UNITY — Accountability was a major theme Saturday as Unity residents voted 65-38 in favor of reorganizing the Unity Volunteer Fire Department so that the fire chief becomes a position appointed by the town selectboard.
Deputy Fire Chief Robert Noll announced at the conclusion of the meeting that there would be a number of resignations at the fire department as a result of the vote. He said after the meeting that the fire department would wait for a date from the selectboard as to when the town thinks it can fill the positions that leave.
The 106 registered voters at the town’s annual meeting Saturday, March 18 held a lengthy and sometimes heated discussion, as residents and members of the fire department went back and forth on the merits of the change.
Francis St. Pierre said the town should have a say in how the fire department is managed.
“I think it’s time for the town to have some say,” he said.
With passage of Article 5, which was placed on the warrant by petition, the Unity Volunteer Fire
Department will adopt an organizational structure under RSA 154:1 (b).
Under this organization, the fire chief would be appointed by the
selectboard, with firefighters appointed by the selectmen at the
recommendation of the fire chief. Two-thirds of the firefighters may
recommend the appointment of any firefighter or fire chief.
The change is slated to take place in 2018.
Baker, the fire department is currently organized under RSA 154:1 (e)
III, in which the fire chief is elected by a two-thirds majority vote of
fire department membership. The department has been organized in this
manner since its founding in 1946.
Several residents said that with the amount taxpayer dollars going to the department every year, the town should know how the money is being spent, holding the fire department more accountable in its budgeting process. The proposed operating budget features $47,500 for the fire department.
Supporters of the current system questioned the need to change it if it is working well. Baker pointed out that of the 175 service calls the department received in 2016, the nine-member fire department was only unable to respond to one because department members were tied up by four other calls on the same day.
“I can only vouch for the last 29 years, but they’ve been similar,” he said.
Baker said that when firefighters are out on a call, it is important that the members trust each other and are able to choose a fire chief they know can lead them.
“If you look at the fire department, it’s bonded by camaraderie and fueled by pride,” he said.
At the beginning of the meeting, resident Adam Boardman put forward a petition for the vote on Article 5 to be conducted via secret ballot.
Members of both the audience and the selectboard, regardless of view on the article, expressed gratitude for what the fire department does for the town.
“No one is questioning the fire department’s ability,” Boardman said.
Noll called the article “a slap in the face” and said he and other fire department members have had to miss out on family events in order to respond to calls at a moment’s notice.
“I believe in every city or town across the state, the fire department has to answer to somebody,” Boardman said. “We trust these [selectmen] to handle all of our money, but we don’t trust them to handle the fire department?”
“My feeling is that the town is looking for accountability,” said Todd Gregory, a 16-year member of the fire department who retired in 2010. “They’re not looking to run the fire department, they’re just looking for information.”
After the article was approved, a motion was made to restrict reconsideration of the article, which was also approved.
Residents also approved a municipal operating budget of $1,036,599, about $133,000 down from last year. Article 7 calling for the appropriation of $300,000 for the reconstruction of a portion of Stage Road was also approved.
Articles adding money to several reserve funds were also approved, including $20,000 for the Revaluation Capital Reserve Fund, $11,000 for the Well Monitoring Expendable Trust fund, and $50,000 for the Highway Vehicles Capital Reserve Fund.
Article 3 seeking authorization for the selectmen to enter into a long-term lease/purchase agreement in the amount of $184,200 payable over three years to purchase a 2017 Western Star 4700sf dump truck with complete plow package passed by a 84-16 ballot vote.
The article appropriate $110,000 for a down payment, with funds to come from the Highway Vehicle Capital Reserve Fund. This will be followed by two annual payments of $39,430 starting April 1, 2018.
Other monetary appropriations approved included $35,000 for the purchase of a utility vehicle for the Highway Department, $30,000 to finish the salt shed retaining wall and begin construction of a vehicle shed for the Highway Department, $7,950 for purchasing digital mapping software and $100,000 for Capital Outlay Road construction. The last appropriation is anticipated to be offset by highway block grant funds.
An article asking for $9,500 to place security cameras in the town office was amended twice — the first time to lower the appropriation to $6,000, and the second time to set the amount as not to exceed $9,500 with the stipulation that the town go out to bid for the cameras. The town is looking to place two cameras per room, totaling about 10 cameras. The article passed as amended.
Article 18 was amended so that in addition to an increase in the exemption amount for elderly property tax exemption, the income and asset caps were also raised. The original article called for an increase in exemption for those age 65-75 from $7,000 to $14,000; from $14,000 to $28,000 for those age 75-80; and from $28,000 to $40,000 for those age 80 and older. Exemptions are taken off of the property’s value prior to taxation.
Gregory said under the current exemption amounts, only a handful of residents apply.
The amendment, in addition to the increase in exemptions, called for the income cutoff to increase from $18,400 to $25,000 for single residents and from $26,400 to $35,000 for married residents, and an increase in the asset cap from $35,000 to $50,000.
The amended article passed, along with all other articles.