Arguing for and against a merger

Weathersfield vice-chair David Fuller (center) discusses the selectboard’s vote to create a municipal fire department. Also present, Selectman Dan Boyer (left) and board clerk Michael Todd (Right).

WEATHERSFIELD, Vt. — Though still unclear about the best path forward, Weathersfield selectmen reiterated that the vote to form a municipal fire department still stands.

At last night’s selectboard meeting, Vice Chair David Fuller, who was elected to the board in March, questioned why the selectboard still intended to pursue a municipal fire department after voters in March defeated the budget proposal that would have funded the plan.

Last term, the selectboard voted 3-2 to merge the Ascutney and West Weathersfield volunteer fire departments into a single municipal operation, based on concerns regarding personnel safety, liability and operational efficiency. The board’s plan hinged upon hiring a full-time fire chief, at a cost of $111,000 per year, to oversee the two departments. However, at town meeting day the voters defeated the department’s $250,000 proposed budget, with 397 votes against to 316 votes in favor.

In addition, the two departments remain opposed to the plan to go municipal. West Weathersfield’s members strongly support becoming a municipal department while Ascutney remains adamantly against it. Despite several votes, including one last week by Australian ballot, Ascutney’s members continue to vote against going municipal.

Last night, Fuller said that selectboard should consider listening to the voters rather than continuing to push its municipal plan.

“I don’t see how it improves anything to force volunteers we desperately need to do something that they voted against doing,” Fuller said.

Fuller indicated that he did not support the need to merge the departments, stating that he has never heard any complaints in town about the quality of service provided by the current system.

However, board clerk Michael Todd said that reasons behind a municipal department were not about quality of service but the safety and liability concerns described in town-funded studies.

“I lean toward municipal because I am aware of problems that I know many people [in the public] are not aware of,” Todd said. “This isn’t putting down the volunteers.”

Todd said that the problem is not the proposal but the need to explain it better to the community.

“When I talk to the public about this proposal, most people either don’t know enough about it or ask ‘why do we need to pay someone a hundred thousand dollars to solve the bickering between departments,’” Todd said. “That is not the problem we are trying to solve.”

Todd suggested that the board allow the voters to decide whether or not to form a municipal department, in which the board focuses on better educating the public on why this decision was made and why a municipal department would address those problems.

Selectman N. John Arrison recommended against Todd’s suggestion, saying that it would be too difficult to reach every voter in order for them to make an informed decision. He said that many voters will immediately see the municipal question and think, “Here the board goes again with that $100,000 proposal.”

Board chair Kelly Murphy ended the discussion by saying that the board will not consider changing its decision right now.

“I’m not going to vote to dissolve that motion,” she said. “There is no reason why that motion cannot sit idle. Let’s give the departments the time to work through it and see what happens.”

On June 3 the selectboard asked representatives from each department to discuss with their respective members about having the two departments work together to create a mutual plan for a single municipal department. The selectmen said they were “at a loss” after failing to reach an agreement with both departments this year and concluded that the departments might be more successful if collaborating together without as much selectboard involvement.

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