2017-08-10 / Front Page

Trustees cut from fire, police to lower budget

By KELSEY CHRISTENSEN

(From left to right) Will Laliberty, Joe Kelly, Chris Dube, Seth Bride, and Brad Reed of the Vermont State Firefighters Association picket outside of the Bellows Falls Village Trustees special meeting Wednesday. — KELSEY CHRSTENSEN(From left to right) Will Laliberty, Joe Kelly, Chris Dube, Seth Bride, and Brad Reed of the Vermont State Firefighters Association picket outside of the Bellows Falls Village Trustees special meeting Wednesday. — KELSEY CHRSTENSENBELLOWS FALLS — The Bellows Falls Village Trustees moved Wednesday to eliminate four full-time Bellows Falls Fire Department positions and to reduce police staffing as necessary to reduce the budget to $1.7 million following last month’s budget re-vote.


Additionally, trustees moved to not purchase any new water and sewer vehicles for the fiscal year of 2018, and to reduce their own trustees stipends from $800 to zero, with the village president’s stipend reduced from $1,000 to zero. Reductions to police department staffing will include not hiring a 10th police officer, as was previously agreed as a measure against overtime expenditures in the department.


Members of the village's remaining two part-time firefighters and 12 to 15 call-firefighters may be subject to elimination during a 120-day restructuring period of the village's fire service.


The trustees also set a new tax rate in accordance with the new general fund amount. The new tax rate is $0.6427 per $100 of assessed property value.


In May, during the annual village meeting, voters passed a $1.98 million budget. After a vote discrepancy issue resulting from unregistered attendees catalyzed a petition to hold a re-vote, village residents passed a reduced budget of $1.7 million on July 20.


Of the excess of $200,000 in savings the board must unearth, cuts to the fire department will account for $160,000, according to Interim Municipal Manager Shane O’Keefe. Savings aside from staffing cuts are difficult to find in the village.


“We’ve looked at savings that are non-salary, and there are some, but at most they’re $40,000,” O’Keefe said.


The village trustees have been deliberating on possible sources of savings since June, when the possibility of a re-vote became imminent.


“We’ve put ourselves in this situation,” trustee Steve Adams said. “It’s a lack of vision for the past 20 years. We only have cost centers. This is where we’re at.”


The meeting was well attended, with citizens on both sides of the issue speaking up.


Ann DiBernardo, member of the Rockingham Selectboard, warned the trustees of the unintended outcomes that may result from the decision.


“You need to consider everything that would happen,” DiBernardo said, raising the concern that, with a smaller fire department staff, there would be fewer available to distribute narcan to what she called an opioid problem in the village.


Additionally, she said that if firefighters lose their jobs, their inability to pay for their homes may result in more properties for sale in the village.


Chief Ronald Lake, who leads both the fire and police departments, said that if the trustees need to find money, they should build a revenue-generating solar array on Minard’s pond.


“We live here, ourselves,” village president Myles Mickle said about the reduction in village services. “We’re going to do our best with this, but we don’t have a lot of time to make these cuts.”


Mickle pointed out that the board will have to cut much more than citizens may have thought when they voted on the budget reduction, because unionized employees must receive notice periods of furlough as long as 120 days. Mickle says if the village doesn’t act fast to save money, they run the risk of running completely out of fund reserves.


Others, however, support the cuts. Eleanor Landry, a resident of the village, says the taxes on her home are $7,160.


“You’ve just got to cut,” Landry said, regardless of criticism from the other side.


Ultimately, the motion to eliminate four fire department positions passed unanimously. The board is planning to arrive upon a transition plan for a new fire department model during the furlough notice period. Amid cuts, the board also moved to create a fire implementation committee.


“We’re going into unexplored territory,” trustee James McAuliffe said. “The community of Bellows Falls put us in this position and they’re going to have to step up and help us fix this problem.”

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