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Northfield committee recommends split from fire district


January 27, 2010
NORTHFIELD — Northfield's Fire Services Committee voted unanimously last Wednesday to recommend separating from the Tilton-Northfield Fire District and finalized its $520,454 proposed budget draft for a theoretical Northfield Fire Department.

The committee first reviewed their charge to investigate what the town would need for fire department coverage and annual operating expenses that it would incur. Over the past few months they determined Northfield could provide adequate protection for its residents with a chief, a four-person full-time staff and a call department for evening and weekend coverage. To reach this decision they examined call volumes for the Town of Northfield over the past few years and found them to be approximately 40 percent of the district's fire and medical activity. Members also spoke with fire chiefs from local communities with similar call volumes for their input on what a department of that size would need for coverage and equipment so they could begin to draft a budget. The draft would be the annual expenses, not the cost of starting a fire department.

Gretchen Wilder of the Fire Services Committee and former TNFD Budget Committee member developed the draft that was brought forth for the full committee to consider. Using TNFD Fire Chief Stephen Cormier's 2009 budget, she applied a 40 percent rule to many of the line items that affected the two towns as a district, calculating that amount as Northfield's approximate financial requirements in those areas.

Salaries topped the operating budget at $216,400 with an additional $6,000 for a part-time deputy chief. While liability, hydrant rental fees and other standard charges were easily obtained through the Water District or provided through Town Administrator Glenn Smith, other uncertain expenses such as gasoline costs, annual costs for new equipment and vehicle maintenance were not so readily decided upon.

Chairman Steve Bluhm said that much of the vehicle maintenance could be performed by the town garage employees in order to keep expenses low.

"We've been updating our fleet in town. As we change out vehicles our mechanic will have more and more open time to do this work," he said.

Overtime was another figure heavily debated at the meeting. Vacation and sick time would mean the full-time staff would have personnel missing periodically throughout the year. Bluhm had met with Gilmanton Fire Chief K.G. Lockwood to talk about overtime at his department and reported that Lockwood, as chief, helped to fill the vacancies when his staff was away.

"The duty of the chief will be to cover firefighters, too," Bluhm said.

Since the chief would be a salaried position, this proposal would keep overtime costs to a minimum.

The budget, Bluhm stated, was basically the groundwork for a fire department. Once a chief is hired for the position, selectmen would meet with him to go over funding available for the department.

"We're going to say to him 'Here's your budget- can you make it work?' and hopefully whoever we bring in can," he said.

Revenues for the department would come through Comstar, the billing agency for ambulance calls. Comstar receives 6.5 percent of all third party billing. Looking through past years at charges related to calls in Northfield only, the committee determined this would mean approximately $7,000 paid out to Comstar, with $80,000 coming back to the town through ambulance services. With this revenue, the budget would become a $440,000 per year expenditure.

Reviewing the numbers in the budget draft, Ronald Huckins pointed out that the town was looking at a budget that they were estimating to be only 7 percent lower than what taxpayers were now paying to receive full-time coverage. He asked that members keep that in mind as they deliberated on their recommendation.

Bluhm, however, provided a chart of future estimated costs to Northfield if they stayed with the fire district. His numbers showed that if the district votes to construct a $2.3 million fire station in East Tilton and make upgrades to the Park Street Station of approximately $600,000, it could mean an additional 57 cents per thousand in taxes for Northfield.

"Now is the time to act," he urged the committee. Once the district began any construction on upgrades and a new station he felt it would be too late to leave the district.

"If our budget was staying at the $561,00 (now being billed to Northfield for fire services) I'd be all for it, but we have to look ahead," Bluhm said.

Based on the projected numbers he provided, the committee members voted one by one to make the recommendation to separate from Tilton-Northfield Fire District.

On Jan. 26, after the Echo went to press, the FSC was scheduled to present this recommendation to the selectmen. If selectmen agree, warrant articles will be voted on both in Northfield and the fire district, and both articles would need a 2/3 majority vote for the measure to pass.

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