Selectboard pauses transition to town-run fire and rescue

If falling metaphors made sounds, someone standing outside the Charlotte Town Hall on Monday, June 26, would have heard two figurative knocks.

Those two knocks would have come from two proverbial shoes being dropped, neither of which was on the agenda of the selectboard meeting that was happening inside.

The meeting began with chair Jim Faulkner announcing that he wanted to pause the transition to a town-run fire and rescue service.

The other shoe that dropped was the news that fire chief Justin Bliss has resigned.

In a phone call, Bliss said he was leaving to spend more time with family.

“I’m really sorry to go. It frustrates me because I feel like we were doing a lot,” Bliss said. “It frustrates me that I need to leave in the middle of that because I feel like there’s so much more I can be doing, but we’ve got a saying in the emergency service world that it’s always family first.”

Faulkner said work on the transition to a municipal fire and rescue service should be paused because the board just doesn’t have enough information to make the change, nor enough time because of dealing with the issue of whether the town should switch to a town manager from a town administrator form of government.

“When we had the town manager issue pop up, that made it pretty difficult because it has an effect on almost everything we do,” Faulkner said.

He said the board has considered a lot of different dates for when the transition for the town to takeover management of the Charlotte Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service would happen. Since its beginning, the fire and rescue service has been a nonprofit organization separate from the town but mostly funded by the town. At one time, the selectboard had thought the fire and rescue transition date would be July 1.

Although the selectboard has recently finished with dealing with the budget after its first proposed budget was vetoed by voters on Town Meeting Day and a second amended budget was approved at a special election on May 2, it will soon be working on next year’s budget in early autumn.

The board discussed returning to the transition after they get through with next year’s budget in January or February.

“There’s a lot of issues in front of the selectboard right now, and we really need to get those finished before we make any kind of transition,” Faulkner said.

Board member Frank Tenney agreed.

“Getting the information, finding out what information is absolutely necessary in order for the changeover, there’s still a lot to be done,” Tenney said. “Time is ticking. We need to get things done, and we need to know what we’re doing.”

The time that is ticking is the need to hire someone to take over for current town administrator Dean Bloch when he retires at the end of October, whether that new hire is a town administrator or town manager.

Dan Lyons of Gallagher, Flynn & Company was hired by the town to work as a consultant, helping the town take over management of the fire and rescue service. The board decided to have Lyons pause in this work.

According to Tenney, a lot of Lyons’ work so far has been on such things as gathering information and finding out what the fire and rescue service’s assets are. Gathering information has been difficult because many of the people working at the fire and rescue service now were not involved with getting the service’s licensing, he said.

“What’s our obligation to the voters and the citizens?” board member Kelly Devine asked.

Tenney replied that there had never been a selectboard vote about when the transition would happen, just a vote that it would happen. The board does have a fiduciary responsibility to the town and this is why they have been working towards a transition to a town-run fire and rescue service.

All the board has been getting from the fire and rescue service is quarterly reports, which show what the budget is, how much has been spent and the percentage that’s been spent, Tenney said.

The town has a verbal agreement with the fire and rescue service board that they would go forward with the goal of merging the service with the town. Tenney attended the fire and rescue board’s most recent meeting and shared the news that there was a possibility of putting the transition on hold.

Tanna Kelton commented from the audience that she was uncomfortable with the amount of turnover there has been at the “fire and rescue department” and she was worried about the strength of the service

Tenney said that as it stands now the fire and rescue service is not a town department and worries about the strength of the service should be addressed to the fire and rescue board.

He said it has been difficult getting information needed to make the transition and part of the trouble in getting information is because most of the members of the fire and rescue service have never accessed this information.

“Most of the people over there have never filled out this information, so they don’t know right off hand what information is necessary that we need to do this,” Tenney said. “It would be nice to have a copy of the current license, which should have all the information on it.”

Other Vermont towns that have gone through a transition from a privately run fire and rescue service to a municipal service.

Faulkner said, “These transitions are very difficult. There are towns that went through a transition, and it didn’t quite work out the way they expected, and the towns ended up paying out a bit more money than they expected.”

Devine said she was concerned because sometimes elected volunteer governmental bodies’ pauses become permanent. She pushed for setting a date to take up the transition again when the board could get a written report from Lyons about what he’s learned and what information he’s looking for.

The board decided to have an update on the transition at its first meeting in August after all its members have had a chance to read Lyons’ notes on the project and the memorandum of agreement the town has with the fire and rescue service. The first regular meeting of the board is scheduled for Monday, Aug. 14.