Fire and Rescue at forefront of budget discussions once again

The Town of Charlotte, VT

Charlotte Volunteer Fire and Rescue Services (CVFRS)  finances were once again under a microscope, this time at a Selectboard meeting budget review in anticipation of this year’s Town Meeting.

The Dec. 17 meeting covered several topics, including a proposed library addition, playground improvements at the Charlotte Beach, a new roof for the Town Hall and the Fire and Rescue Department’s proposed budget.

Two hours into a meeting that clocked in at nearly six hours, Town Clerk and Treasurer Mary Mead presented the town’s 2019-20 budget. After reviewing items including charitable donations, the Parks and Recreation Department budget and Trails Committee funding requests, talk turned to the CVFRS budget—which quickly turned contentious.

The department presented two budget options, one that included funding for an ambulance purchase in 2019-20 and one that pushes that purchase to the following fiscal year. Selectboard member Matt Krasnow said that the two plans presented “both involve increasing annual appropriations over time” and noted that the goal set last year was for the department to maintain solvency. At the end of 2017, the department exceeded their budget by over $54,000, though under-runs from other departments made up for the overage.

Earlier in the meeting, the board heard a bond proposal from the Bond Committee of the Charlotte Library, a group that has been working on the early stages of a capital plan to build a $1.4 million addition to the public library (See sidebar.). The Fire and Rescue Department is also requesting a bond this year for a new ambulance; the vehicle would cost taxpayers $275,000.

Fire Chief Dick St. George said during the meeting that it would be prudent to purchase the ambulance this year instead of postponing it, citing increased steel costs and tariffs, rising interest rates and rising maintenance costs for the current 2004 vehicle. Those costs include retrofitting the current ambulance with a gurney safety apparatus and replacing both summer and winter tires. If the purchase is postponed, St. George said, the eventual cost of a new ambulance could increase to as much as $315,000.

CVFRS President Tom Cosinuke supported St. George’s statement, saying that maintenance costs exceed $9,000 annually. He also pointed out that repairs have been made “a couple times” because of exhaust leaks into the ambulance, which is a safety issue for rescue personnel.

As CVFRS presented their case for requesting Selectboard support to present the bond to taxpayers at Town Meeting, Mead raised her hand to weigh in.

“We are asked to support so much money,” she said. She brought up the fact that Charlotte does not charge other towns for our fire and rescue services. Referencing the earlier discussion about the library addition, she noted that the Selectboard asked the library committee to raise half of their project’s cost privately and said that the fire department should be required to do the same in the interest of fairness.

“I’d like to see my firefighters training,” St. George said, “not flipping pancakes for diesel fuel. I’ve been in departments like that before, and it doesn’t work.”

Patrice Machavern, CVFRS business operations manager, said that the department is part of a mutual aid agreement with surrounding municipalities, including Bristol, Monkton, Vergennes, Shelburne and Hinesburg. She said responding to calls in other towns generates revenue for the department because Charlotte is able to bill insurance companies for any ambulance calls to which they respond. St. George said it’s not realistic to charge other towns for first response. “We can’t add a contract price in when no one else does,” he said.

Moe Harvey, who was in the audience at the meeting, said that the department purchased an ambulance in 2014, and that two ambulances in five years for a town of 3,600 people seemed excessive. He pointed out that in a recent week of fire and rescue responses, there were nine calls, not one of which was in Charlotte. “It’s absolutely ridiculous,” he said.

As discussion continued, Mead said that she wanted to see details relating to the Fire and Rescue Department’s budget. In the past, the department’s finances have come under scrutiny, and in 2014 the town and CVFRS reached an agreement that an independent certified public accountant would perform an annual audit.

Cosinuke responded to Mead’s request for more detail by asking, “Are you saying the transparency has not improved in the last two years?”

“I am saying that. Exactly,” Mead answered.

The conversation grew more heated as Mead and Cosinuke spoke at the same time, prompting Mead to hold out a hand and tell him, “Hush!”
Selectboard member Fritz Tegatz, who also volunteers for the fire department, joined the fray, questioning why Mead should be involved in the CVFRS’s budget and accounting.

“Why are you qualified to make these decisions,” he said, and went on to ask why firefighters should participate in fundraising. “What effort have you put in to figure out what goes on? I listen to people tell that [firefighters] should be asking for donations. I spent probably 14 to 15 hours putting stuff in the truck last week and nobody gets billed for it, but I’m supposed to stand out there with a damn boot and say, ‘Please give me your pennies?’ You don’t have any idea how much time volunteers put into it, but you still want more…you want volunteers to pay for the privilege by going out there and collecting money.”

Mead said she was not speaking negatively about the volunteers or their efforts and that she was just asking to see how the money was being spent.

Selectboard Chair Lane Morrison redirected the conversation. “I appreciate your comments,” he said, “We’re settled on the bookkeeping procedures that we have.” Further discussion between Krasnow and Morrison brought the talk back to figures: the options were to keep the CVFRS budget at $100,000 for two years and bring it up to $140,000 in 2021-22, or increase it for two years to $120,000.

After further discussion, the board settled on removing a $35,000 stretcher purchase from the CVFRS budget and keeping the overall number at $100,000 for the next year, with the potential for raising that budget to $110,000 in 2020-21. This would allow them to bond for the ambulance at town meeting this year.

Morrison, Krasnow and Selectboard member Frank Tenney all supported this decision, and member Carrie Spear demurred. “I don’t have to give my answer right this minute, do I? You’ve already got three,” she said. Tegatz then voted in favor of supporting the CVFRS budget as well.

Krasnow noted that this year was unusual in that there were significant capital requests from two town departments.

The Parks and Recreation department also presented plans at the meeting for a new playground and enhanced Charlotte Beach area; further discussion of this matter is to continue at that department’s regular meetings. The Trails Committee also requested additional funds, and the Selectboard decided to keep their budget at $5,000 with no additional funds for the year.

Repairs to the Town Hall roof were also discussed, and the board decided to leave $2,500 in the account and see if there’s an overrun from elsewhere in the budget that would allow the repairs to be made this year.

“A tarp is 40 bucks,” Krasnow joked. Tegatz chimed in, “A bucket is $1.50.”