Selectmen approve sending fire department budget to voters

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FARMINGTON – The Board of Selectmen approved a department budget for Farmington Fire Rescue that includes two full-time positions at Tuesday evening’s meeting, setting the issue before voters at the annual town meeting later this year.

The $566,549 proposed budget for the department would represent a $31,000 increase from the previous fiscal year’s budget, at roughly $535,000, but is down significantly from the request made previously this year. In total, Town Manager Richard Davis said, the proposed municipal budget would come in at roughly $21,000 above this year’s budget, an increase of roughly .1 percent.

The department is still proposing adding two full-time firefighters for the remainder of the year, starting after the annual town meeting. That would bring the department up to six full-time employees and staffing the station 24 hours a day. Chief Terry Bell and Deputy Chief Tim Hardy both said that while they understood the hardships imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, they were concerned with the department’s available manpower on late-night calls.

“I am very concerned how much more we can ask from our people,” Hardy said. He noted that on a medical assistance call last week, he was the only firefighter that responded.

The department intends to use the full-time firefighters and per diem personnel in order to ensure the station is staffed at all times with at least two people. In addition to a number of other reductions made previously, the proposed budget’s reserve account appropriation was reduced down to $25,000.

Selectmen voted unanimously to approve the proposed budget for the department, putting it before the town.

“For less than 1 percent, I don’t see how we can’t support the fire department,” Selectman Scott Landry said.

Selectman Stephan Bunker called the issue the one thing that he had toiled with the most since he had been on the board. The town had an obligation to provide fire protection, he said, calling the department’s request “reasonable.” Bunker did warn that if the pandemic’s economic impact was protracted, towns would need to make difficult decisions regarding future cuts.

Selectmen also suggested that local departments needed to look at regionalizing fire protection services.

Davis did point out that the budget only funds the extra positions for roughly one-quarter of the calendar year, meaning the costs would increase if the positions were maintained through the next year.

The date of the town meeting remains in doubt. Farmington has committed to holding local elections on July 14 – coinciding with the state referendum – and had tentatively planned to hold its town meeting the following Monday, July 20. Crowd restrictions relating to the governor’s reopening plan, however, would prohibit a traditional meeting in the community center in July. The meeting could be further delayed into August or even later, Davis said, but it was difficult to plan that now.

“We just don’t know how things are going to be in August,” Davis said.

Alternatives could include holding a referendum-style vote on the warrant, similar to Jay’s annual town meeting. Selectmen also briefly discussed holding the meeting at an outdoor venue, such as at the fairgrounds, depending on what restrictions were in place at the time.

The board is also expecting Police Chief Jack Peck to present new budgetary figures sometime in early summer, prior to town meeting. Peck already presented a revised budget at a previous meeting with $71,000 in reductions.

Davis said that he believes the town may realize approximately $250,000 less than was initially projected for non-property tax revenue. One option to blunt that impact on the local assessment could be to utilize money in the town’s Unassigned Fund, town officials said Tuesday. Davis said that the initial debt payment on the fire truck had been deferred from December 2020 until January 2021, pushing it out of this budget and into the next.

In other business, Davis said that the town office will reopen to the public on June 1. Improvements in the lobby will include stanchions to reinforce social distancing and plexiglass barriers to limit contact. The drop box at the town office will stay in place, Davis said.

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