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Ossipee fire precincts consolidation proposal aired at public hearing

April 29, 2010
OSSIPEE — Town select board members hosted a long awaited public forum April 20 to air thoughts and opinions on a consultant's report recommendation to consolidate the town's three separate fire precincts – Ossipee Corner, West Ossipee and Center Ossipee – into one administrative entity.

Currently, per state law, each precinct has its own chief, staff and fire precinct commission. Approximately 75 residents attended the two-hour forum, where top guns from Municipal Resources Inc., a Meredith-based municipal consulting firm, presented a PowerPoint show with the reports overview and highlights. Copies of the report are available at the library, town hall and through a link on the town's web site, www.ossipee.org. MRI Chief Operating Officer Alan Gould and retired fire chief Bob Wood of MRI presenting the findings, which proposed numerous ideas and suggestions. The report included some criticism of the "lack of common vision for delivery of cost effective fire services among the precincts," and an assessment that communications between the precincts and town hall were strained. The report also suggested redeployment of ladder and rescue companies, and a more streamlined, written agreement on automatic mutual aid. It noted a "wide disparity between policies and procedures between precincts."

At the onset, select board chair Harry Merrow said this was not the night for final decisions on the topic and if any changes are made, they will occur thoughtfully over time with participated from fire staff and commissioners.

After the overview it was the public's turn to weigh in and most were not shy about expressing their opinions. There was also strong support in favor of consolidating the precincts.

Here's a sampling of commentary:

Susan Riley of Ossipee Corner wondered why the report criticized communication between the departments because they do have mutual aid meetings once a money. "I listen to the scanner and hear them cooperating with eachother. I'm wondering what more do you want," she said.

Wood replied that the reference pertained to formalizing and recognizing each others resources as well as the economy of scale purchases and standardizing equipment to save money. "It's a niche market. Equipment is very expensive," he said.

Riley asked a follow up question about the ownership of the equipment if the consolidation takes place, and Wood replied that whatever political unit is designated (to run the unified department) would "absorb 100 percent of the assets."

In later comments, Wood acknowledged that the report in no way suggests a reduction to staffing levels. "The idea is to hold on to the number of people you already have," he said.

Frank Riley a retired fire chief from Ossipee Corner, supported consolidation.

"I believe this needs to happen," he said, adding that the precincts spend a lot of money on chiefs. "Ossipee should have one fire department and it should be under the Board of Selectmen, not fire precincts," he said.

He said the departments have a lot of equipment, like boats, ATVs and snow sleds. Consolidation could save equipment costs. "I think the Selectmen and precinct commissioners should move forward," he said, adding that he would like to see a warrant article that voters could move on next year.

Donald Meader also supported the consolidation and asked the select board to conduct a survey in town. "If this information is disbursed, I would recommend going to the community and devising a survey," he said.

Merrow said because the MRI report is so large, it's impractical for the town to send out paper copies, but that anyone who wants to can study the report online or borrow a disk with the presentation.

"This is not going to be done this year, even if you ask for it. I'm not saying we're for it or against it. There are a lot of details that need to be worked out," said Merrow. "I would like to see how many things in the report can be or have been done without merging," he said.

Resident Ralph Brownell noted that "50 percent" of residents do not have the Internet.

Precinct Commissioner Bob Freeman asked what impact the proposed new fire station (for Ossipee Corner) would have on taxes. Merrow said he didn't anticipate building anything right away. "There is so much nitty gritty here its ridiculous. I'm not about to work everything out before we decide to do it," said Merrow.

Resident Terry Hooper said one issue is the public doesn't know what goes on with the precincts and she said before the survey people should know what's in the report.

Fire Chiefs Adam Riley and Mike Brownell also weighed in to the report, noting that there are numerous suggestions within that are either already getting done or on the list. Brownell suggested the select board play a role in directing the precincts to future action on the report. He also added that the precincts meet twice a month and the meetings are posted in advance, with little turnout. Riley also said there is a lot to digest in the report. "I think eventually we'll come to this, but it has to be done slowly so we don't lose the main structure of the fire department, which is the firefighters."

At the end of the meeting, Merrow suggested that the board meet with the fire officials in the near future to discuss what has been done on the report.

Garnett Hill
Martin Lord Osman
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