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Fire chiefs weigh in on MRI draft report

Fact checking session held Oct. 19

October 29, 2009
OSSIPEE — The board of selectmen hosted a two-hour fact-checking session Monday, Oct. 19 on the draft report Municipal Resources Inc presented on the feasibility of merging the town's three separate fire precincts and departments.

All three fire chiefs, Bradley Eldridge of West Ossipee, Adam Riley of Ossipee Corner, and Mike Brownell of Center Ossipee, and each precincts' commissioners attended the meeting, along with MRI study team members including Chief Executive Officer Alan Gould and Robert Wood, a retired fire chief from Durham with decades of experience in the fire and rescue service, including leadership roles in the state and New England fire chiefs association.

At the meeting's onset, Select board chair Kathleen Maloney set the ground rules. "No arguing. We're going to be adults and work together as a town," she said. And so it went. The tone of the meeting was civil with at least two attendees, former Center Ossipee Roland Stockbridge, and commissioner Paul Jay commenting the spirit of cooperation and professionalism exhibited at the session encouraged them.

"It does my heart good, to see the continuity come out of this meeting, that you hired and secured a firm that cares about Ossipee and are willing to listen to the commissions. I think the town of Ossipee residents would be proud to know what has been accomplished here today," said retired Center Ossipee Fire Chief Roland Stockbridge after the meeting. Board members agreed. "I couldn't have said it better," said Maloney.

At the session, the board reviewed the 142-page draft report chapter by chapter. Fire chiefs and commissioners had numerous suggestions and corrections to the draft, including corrections to budget numbers and those to more subjective statements and findings. Once the draft is updated, MRI will prepare a PowerPoint presentation for public consumption at a future public hearing. That session has not yet been scheduled. The report studies the feasibility of merging the town's three distinct fire precincts in to one central administrative unit, while maintaining the town's three fire department locations. The entire MRI team will make a presentation to the town once the report is updated. Selectman Harry Merrow noted that the town would have to vote on whether or not to merge the departments.

Here are some highlights of the discussion:

Ossipee Corner Fire Commissioner Lynne Parker suggested that the report include figures on the town's seasonal population as well, since that number rises in the summer. It was estimated that the town's population rises three-fold in the summer. She added that the state's snow machine trail corridor goes through the whole town of Ossipee, which has a big impact on our services.

Fire Commissioner Jim Dolan of Center Ossipee suggested the report clarify that the precincts operate under RSA 52 as a Village District and under RSA Chapter 154. In a written list of corrections and questions, he included copies of separate letters from Attorney Rick Sager describing the legal structure of fire precinct operation, as well as a letter regarding a fire department consolidation study from Tilton. That letter warned about potential lawsuits and legal expenses in the Tilton scenario.

Dolan also suggested clarification as to the phases of a potential fire precinct merger. "I know you want to be taxpayer friendly in presenting this but the way the phases are integrated here the common taxpayer is going to get lost," he said.

"The recommendations should clearly spelled out how to from three precincts to a town fire department," he added.

Dolan referenced an MRI analysis for Tilton-Northfield Fire District in which the writer states that breaking up the district will involve expenses to lobby the state legislature to take action. The memo states that "there will be further legal expenses to break up the fire districts followed by lawsuits and counter-suits that will keep the situation stagnated possibly for years."

"I think the town of Ossipee should get that advice from you as well," said Dolan.

Selectmen Harry Merrow said as he understood, there are two ways to consolidate. The first is by a vote of the individual precincts. The second way is for the town to ask the Legislature to pass enabling legislation that would allow the town to make the decision through Town Meeting, rather than with each precinct. Merrow did not favor the legislative approach.

Selectmen Morton Leavitt said one of the responsibilities of the selectmen is to determine what the procedures are for consolidation, and that will take time.

Merrow agreed. "This is not a quick project. Fire we have to decide if we want to do this, and if we do, then the process starts. And it will take a process. There are a number of ways we can go. We should all get together and decide the best way. There shouldn't be any animosity here. What we're trying to do – and I'm sure we all agree – is what's best for the town," said Merrow. "I see selectmen as facilitators; I don't want any part of running the fire department and I don't think anybody else does either. But I do think its up to us to facilitate this since the town asked us to do it," he added.

Leavitt added, "We are on the same page, trying to take the necessary steps in the best interest of the town, not only financially but in other respects too. I'm encouraged by what I see."

In other comments, Chief Mike Brownell questioned some of the reports working that indicated the precincts and the selectmen's office were not working together. "They use the word, 'isolation' that extends through all aspects of planning, operation and resource allocation. I would question that observation," said Brownell.

He also questioned the assertion that there was a lack of a sense of common vision for delivery of cost effective services. "… I eliminated $12,000 from my operating budget last year before I came to the budget committee, so that statement is not 100 percent true… a layman may think we're spending money any which way we wish and that does not happen."

Chief Eldridge noted that great savings was realized last year with insurance costs, and that it doesn't hit the paper every time the departments talk to each other. "There's a lot of shared information and experiences that go on. It's no different than two highway department or two police departments talking," he said. "Is there room for improvement, yes. But it's a work in progress," said Eldridge.

In other comments regarding administrative details and costs, Commissioner Jay noted that by law the precincts have to elect the treasurer and the clerk from the constituency or that the board of selectmen could serve as the elected representatives to handle the money. "Anybody that handles the money has to be an elected official, period," said Jay, noting that the selectmen could utilize the town's elected clerk and treasurer as well.

Brownell also clarified that contrary to the draft report, all three fire stations have the exact same fire extrication equipment, exact same vests, etc. He suggested the summary could have been broken down according to equipment. He said the communications equipment (radios and mobile) was the same as well.

Leavitt said that there was substantial grant money available to fire departments, and asked whether the precincts would be more apt to obtain grant funds if they merged into one department.

Brownell said he didn't know how to answer that, but all three precincts have put in for and received grants.

In other comments, Jim Spencer of Ossipee Corner said he was concerned with the tone of parts of the report.

"There's a problem with the tone of a lot of the statements in here, its very strongly worded suggesting the precincts don't talk and there is no communication… no standardization. These are opinions and we disagree with them," he said.

"You are free to say that but wish you wouldn't state it as a fact because it's not. I understand you guys have an impressive resume for analyzing fire service but there are people in this room that have impressive resumes for that, too. So just think its wrong to use such strong language. In particular when you say things like, "significant cost reductions are offered or this has resulted in significant added expense of equipment', we need to see examples of this. Where do you see 'significant added expense.'? Don't just say that without backing it up," he said.

Numerous other corrections or clarifications were suggested to some of the budget items, expense categories and so forth.

Matin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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