VEAZIE, Maine — Supporters of the Veazie Fire Department are urging voters to reject the proposed departmental budget during the annual town meeting, scheduled at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Veazie Community School.
At issue is a 26 percent budget cut that fire department members and their supporters say would lead to the layoff of one or both of the fire department’s two full-time employees, Capt. Pete Metcalf and Lt. Nick Sirois. The department also has about 20 “call” members, who are paid for their time responding to emergencies and for time spent in training.
In a flier being circulated by fire department members and others in the community, opponents of the fire department budget cut point out that the two full-timers also are the town’s emergency medical responders and certified trainers.
They also claimed that the community faced the possible loss of call firefighters, including six Veazie residents, “based on lack of support for the department,” as well as longer response times from Bangor and Orono and a possible increase in homeowner insurance premiums.
Fire department supporters also state that a $60,000 budget cut made after a public hearing on the municipal and school budgets last month passed in a 3-2 vote without any public discussion and without a contingency plan.
They urged voters to contact the three councilors who voted in favor of the cut, Chris Bagley, Joe Friedman and Jon Parker, to ask what their plan was for fire coverage in the future.
In the flier, they say that rejecting the fire department budget — Article 6 on the town meeting warrant — will force the Town Council to rework the department’s budget “with public input and open discussion.”
The fire department budget cuts were among many made by Veazie town councilors this year to hold the line on property taxes, which now stands at $20.50 per $1,000 in property valuation.
After a public hearing on the 2013-14 budget earlier this month, the councilors made a final round of budget cuts, including an additional $60,000 reduction to the fire department budget.
Town councilors have not yet disclosed how the $60,000 cut will be absorbed, Leonard said. Some possibilities discussed during their recent budget hearing include going to a volunteer fire department, possibly with a paid chief, and contracting for fire protection with a nearby town, such as Orono or Bangor.
Parker, however, said the councilors are not eliminating the fire department.
“If so, why would we have budgeted the [more than] $170,000?” he said in an email on Sunday.
Parker said also that homeowner insurance rates might actually decrease if the reorganization is handled correctly “as we would be covered by a 24-hour department versus a call department, if contracted out.”
He said another possibility that would provide coverage similar to what Veazie has now would be to have a full-time chief working five days a week, with a part-timer or call firefighters handling weekends.
Parker said response time at night will not change from the status quo.
Parker also said that as it stands, Orono firefighters routinely turn out to Veazie’s structure fires and often are inside the structures before Veazie has a usable crew on scene.
“No, I don’t want to see people lose their jobs but we also have to be careful and wise with the way we spend taxpayers’ dollars,” Parker said.
The fire department’s current annual budget amounts to $235,354, according to Interim Town Manager Mark Leonard, who also is the town’s police chief. The original proposed budget for next year totaled $231,767 but as a result of budget cuts, it now stands at $171,767, he said.
On Friday, Metcalf, Sirois and Fire Chief Gerry Martin each said that the fire department budget, as it now is proposed, is not sufficient to cover both full-time positions, which provide fire station staffing from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.
“The only thing left to cut is personnel,” Martin said.
Martin, who is employed by the department on a part-time basis, said he is considering retiring as of July 1, if that would help preserve the two full-time positions.
“I didn’t plan to [retire],” said Martin, who has been involved in fire protection for 32 years in both Veazie and Orono. He said that Metcalf and Sirois were key assets who, in addition to their regular duties, have written successful grant applications.
“They’re well-trained and dedicated people,” he said. “They’re both really loyal.”
While Leonard said there is no immediate plan for layoffs if the fire department budget does pass next week, he did confirm that the town is seeking fire service proposals from the Bangor and Orono fire departments. He said Orono has provided a proposal but said it was too early to disclose the details. As of Friday, Bangor had yet to make an offer for providing coverage for Veazie, he said.
During a recent meeting, town councilors voted to appoint a five-member committee to explore the town’s fire service options. The panel, which has yet to be appointed, will consist of one town councilor, a fire department member and three residents, Leonard said.