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Public weighs pros and cons of fire district dissolution


February 03, 2010
NORTHFIELD — Extra chairs were brought in as residents from both Tilton and Northfield piled into Northfield's Town Hall last Tuesday to hear the logic behind the Fire Services Committee's recommendation to dissolve the Tilton-Northfield Fire District, and to show their support or opposition to that recommendation.

The Fire Services Committee had voted unanimously in favor of recommending the split at its meeting the previous week. Tuesday's meeting was a chance for the committee to share its findings with the Northfield Board of Selectmen and the public.

"It has nothing to do with politics," Northfield Selectman and Fire Services Committee Chairman Steve Bluhm said. "It really comes down to dollars and cents."

Bluhm explained the numbers behind the decision. With the Life Safety Building Committee in Tilton planning a $3.378 million fire station addition to a life safety building, plus $600,000 for an addition to the Park Street station and $305,000 for three firefighters, a deputy chief and part-time secretary, the committee figures that the district will pay an additional $296,000 per year, plus interest. Bluhm said Northfield's 40 percent would mean an extra $240,404 per year, on top of the current budget of $565,000. After planned expenses, Northfield's portion of the district budget would be up to $805,404 per year, a 42.5 percent increase.

Northfield Selectman Deb Shepard asked the committee about start-up costs but was told that information is not yet available.

Tilton Selectman and representative to Tilton's Life Safety Building Committee Pat Consentino questioned those numbers, however.

"The figures that everybody's throwing around are really not fair to us," she said. "We still have a lot of work to do."

Consentino said that the architect's proposal is a top-of-the-line design, and now that cost estimates are in the committee will get to work whittling it down.

She also pointed out that nothing has been passed yet, and even if Tilton voters approve starting construction on a life safety building, the fire commissioners don't plan to start building a new fire station until 2017.

Several residents spoke against the proposed split.

"My concern is that over the years we have invested monies into equipment personnel, locations, training, etcetera, etcetera," Northfield resident Joe DeMello said. "Now we're saying it may be getting too expensive because there's been a lot of back and forth between the selectmen of both towns, which is incorrect."

DeMello said the fire district does not answer to selectmen of either town, and Tilton residents should have gone to the district with its concerns rather than commissioning the MRI study.

"On-call guys are fine, if you can get them consistently," DeMello said. "It's pretty hard for me to assume that you can guarantee that we're going to have the same level of service that we enjoy now. I'm really concerned about this folks; don't take it lightly."

Former Fire Chief Harold Harbour cautioned that training personnel would be costly and time-consuming, and finding volunteers would be difficult.

"We've been around doing this for 100 years together," Tilton resident Pat Clark said. "I'd hate to flush it down the toilet."

Clark said he was willing to admit that Tilton shot the fist bow across the river by commissioning the Muncipal Resources Inc. report to study the district's needs, but said the district needs to "take a breath" before moving forward.

"I'm running for fire commissioner this year to try to keep the district together," Clark added.

Northfield resident and Tilton Town Manager Joyce Fulweiler said that before she could make a decision, she needed to be convinced this would be the best move for Northfield.

Did the committee look at any other way of reducing these (district) costs without dissolving?" she asked.

Fire Services Committee member Gretchen Wilder said that as a former district Budget Committee member, trying to cut the proposed budget was frustrating, and not enough people attend the annual meeting to cut it further.

"I would hate to lose 24/7 coverage," Fulweiler said. "Right now I think it's kind of a knee-jerk reaction. Once that's split there would be no going back."

Wilder said that she fully supports the recommendation and wouldn't be making it if she didn't feel it was right for the town.

"I have to look you in the eye in the grocery store," she said. "In three years if this kiboshes, you're going to come looking for me. I live in this town; I'm not going to support something that I don't feel in my heart is a viable option for my community."

Wilder also said she thought people would be surprised at the on-call force a Northfield department could put together. The committee has said it would like its on-call force to be 36 members strong. The department would also have full-time coverage from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week.

Northfield resident Lisa Swancott spoke in favor of forming a Northfield Fire Department.

"You have more control over your expenditures, more voice, more say than what you have now," she said. "If we can do it for less money and keep the same service, which I believe we can, (then) it's not scary."

The Northfield Board of Selectmen has yet to decide whether it will accept the committee's recommendation. There will be other opportunities for public comment prior to Northfield's Town Meeting, which could see a warrant article asking to start its own department, and prior to the annual district meeting, which may have an article that would dissolve the district if approved.

"If you don't want to vote for it, don't vote for it; we are giving you the options and numbers," Bluhm said. "We're showing you there's a substantial savings."

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