July 11, 2012Gilford town officials went before a Belknap Superior Court Judge Friday, July 6 to prove their need to host a special town meeting to vote on a lease for a new fire truck to replace Engine-Four.
Representing the town administration was Attorney Walter Mitchell, who reminded everyone present that the focus of hearing was to ask the court whether or not they can proceed with a special town meeting. He stressed that they were not there to talk about the maintenance of the old truck, or if they should buy new or used. He reminded everyone that those issues could be addressed a the deliberative session, if the court granted permission to proceed.
According to Mitchell, the town needed to prove an urgency for a new truck, and emergency, in this instance, did not mean a crisis.
Mitchell said that because of the eight-month delivery time on a new fire truck, they wanted to order one as soon as possible, instead of waiting for the 2013 Town Meeting next spring. With the special town meeting, the Selectmen could enter in a lease agreement in September instead of March, allowing for delivery by May or June 2013, instead of November or December.
"To this point, we do not have the funds. We have no options where we stand," said Mitchell, commenting on where the selectmen would stand if their request for the meeting was denied.
Mitchell called Fire Chief Steve Carrier to testify. Carrier provided Judge McHugh some background details on the Engine-Four, fire truck they hope to replace.
According to Carrier, the most important role of Engine-Four is to be the first-line piece of apparatus on the scene of an incident if Engine-Two is on another call or out for repairs. Carrier also testified that the Gilford Fire Department has run four engines since 1968, and each had a specific function when responding to calls.
"It is a vital piece of equipment," said Carrier.
Mitchell and Carrier outline the events leading up to the special town meeting process.
According to Carrier, after the 2012 Town Meeting, he and the Board of Fire Engineers sent Engine-Four to Lakes Region Fire Apparatus for pump work to begin addressing the major problem areas on the truck.
Carrier said that three days after they delivered the truck, he received a call form their technician requesting that he witness the damage to the pump as, he believed, it was the worst case scenario.
Carrier said the repairs would cost about $49,000 without addressing the wiring issues, which the LRFA tech said he would not take on.
Overall, Carrier said the technician recommended they not spend any money fixing the truck because of its age and condition.
Mitchell submitted to the Judge several pages of quotes from LRFA and Valley Fire Equipment and pages from the National Fire Protection Association, which advised replacing fire apparatus 25-years-old.
According to Carrier, some departments in the Lakes Region maintain a truck older that is 25-years-old, but he believed they would not spend that amount of money to keep it in service.
Since the 2012 Town Meeting, Engine-Four was ordered off the road by a New Hampshire Department of Transportation officer, and was towed back to the station with the pump and portion of drive-train still dismantled. Since then, Gilford firefighters have relied on Laconia and Tilton-Northfield departments.
Carrier said that Lakes Region Mutual Aid requires departments to take care of their routine calls, and to provide long-term apparatus loans is "well outside the boundaries of normal mutual aid." While other towns have been accommodating, letting Gilford firefighters use equipment when available, Carrier said it lengthens response time, which is the most crucial factor in responding to any emergency.
As for cost of an additional election, Mitchell said town officials planned to have the vote on the same day as the State Primary, so there would be no additional cost to voters.
Speaking in opposition to the special town meeting were Budget Committee members Kevin Leandro and David Horvath.
According to Leandro, the Selectmen and Board of Fire Engineers did not meet the five criteria to warrant a special town meeting, and if they were facing a real emergency, they would look into a used or demonstration apparatus for a fast solution, instead of waiting the eight-month lead time on a new truck.
Leandro asked Carrier if he budgeted any additional funds for their maintenance, knowing that they would need to keep their old truck for at-least eight months while the new truck was built. Carrier said he did not, and based the maintenance budget on previous years.
According to Carrier, they did not know how bad the situation was until after the 2012 town meeting vote.
Leandro said he was also baffled that town officials wanted to move ahead with the meeting without getting a second quote for repairs. Leandro said that most of the repairs could be preformed at the Gilford Department of Public Works at little cost to the town.
Judge McHugh reminded Leandro that they were dealing with a 25-year-old piece of equipment, and asked how long, with repairs, Leandro expected it would last. The Judge suggested less than five years.
Mitchel reminded Leandro that they were discussing the need for the meeting, not the political issues of repair or replacement of the apparatus, a discussion which he said could take place during a deliberative session.
Horvath insisted that the town should not have gone before the court yet because the situation had not been properly vetted before the Budget Committee, and the Committee voted and approved the warrant article before they had permission from the Judge for the special meeting.
"The process has not been satisfied," said Horvath. "We did not have a political discussion."
Mitchell again reminded Horvath and Leandro that all this discussion could happen at a deliberative session before all willing voters.
"Clearly [Leandro] wants to be the decision maker," said Mitchell. "He is not in that role."
As of the Steamer's deadline Tuesday morning, Town Amministrator Scott Dunn had not yet recived an official ruling from the Court.