DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — The Piscataquis County commissioners and Eastern Piscataquis County town officials plan to meet to find a middle ground for fire protection costs in the county’s surrounding Unorganized Territory communities.
The contract fees paid by the communities range from $3,500 to $8,400 a year per township.
The commissioners paid Greenville $33,258 in 2009 for fire protection in five surrounding townships and in 2010 they will pay a total of $33,118 for the service.
In comparison, the commissioners paid a combined $34,399 in 2009 for Milo’s coverage of Ebeemee, Katahdin Iron Works and Williamsburg; Brownville’s coverage of Orneville; and the Sebec Fire Department’s coverage of Barnard. For 2010, the three entities submitted a collaborative bid for coverage of the eastern communities of $55,000 plus $500 an hour for rescue calls, such as motor vehicle accidents, and mutual-aid costs.
The extra cost for rescue calls and mutual-aid costs in the regional effort, however, caused the commissioners to pause.
Commissioner Fred Trask said Tuesday that the Unorganized Territory has shared in the purchase of fire equipment and training costs through the years, yet it is expected to pay an additional price. “It’s just a little bit much,” he said.
Commissioner Tom Lizotte agreed that a 66 percent increase in one year was too much.
“I don’t know where we have that money. We don’t have it in the budget,” he said.
Brownville Town Manager Sophia Wilson reminded the commissioners that she had presented a contract this fall to continue coverage at the same price as last year. She said the commissioners’ response was to encourage the Sebec Fire Department, which covered the Unorganized Territory community of Barnard, to submit a contract for coverage in Williamsburg. Then, she said, the commissioners sought bids outside of the county in LaGrange and Bradford.
“When people go behind the scenes and try to pit fire departments against one another, you have to expect that we are going to circle the wagons and try to protect the mutual aid arrangements that allow us to provide fire protection at the lowest cost that we can right now,” Wilson said Tuesday.
The collaborative contract was a compromise, Wilson said. Brownville officials are not willing to have residents pay the costs of fighting fires in the Unorganized Territory, she said.
Wilson said the town had offered its initial flat rate contract as a way for the county to reduce its costs, but the tradeoff was that the county would assume more liability. A fire department’s costs of liability are growing at an exponential rate, she noted.
Milo Town Manager Jeff Gahagan spoke out Tuesday about the matter. He said Milo had offered two contract choices, but neither was good enough for the commissioners, including the collaborative effort.
Lizotte commended the three towns for taking a regional approach in their contract proposal, but he faulted them in his next breath.
“Your collaborative proposal is good in a way because you did get together and looked at things differently,” he said. “But it looks like you crossed a line potentially here between collaboration and collusion. By getting together with the three towns, you in essence cut off competition, cornered the market and fixed the prices.”
Saying that it was perhaps time to hit the “reset button,” Lizotte suggested that all the parties work to find a middle path that was honorable for all.
Wilson said those discussions need to begin soon since Brownville has been providing the protection service since July without a county contract. She said if no contract is in place by Dec. 31, the town’s service will stop.