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Joyce Endee

Merrow and Leavitt not in favor of fire department merger

January 12, 2012
OSSIPEE — This weekend citizens will have one more chance to ask questions and hear a presentation meant to help them decide whether or not Ossipee's three fire precincts should merge into one.

Five thousand surveys were mailed out using the Ossipee voter checklist and the taxpayer list. Selectman Harry Merrow estimates one-third of those who were sent a survey have already returned them. Surveys are due back to town hall by Jan. 30. Any received after that date will not be accepted. Selectmen plan to tally the results on Feb. 6.

Once very much in favor of consolidating the town's three fire precincts, Merrow announced at the three hearings held so far that he is now opposed to the idea. "When it first came out, I was for it. As it has progressed, I have changed my mind," he said.

Town fire officials and those who work closely with the day-to-day operations of the precincts disagree with the accuracy of data collected in the Municipal Resources, Inc. (MRI) study that concluded the town would best benefit from a merger of the precincts. Center Ossipee Precinct Commissioner Robert Freeman said the report was a "waste of $20,000" and "not worth the paper it is written on." Merrow disagreed and said, if nothing else, the report "got the fire departments talking and working better together," something he said might not have happened if not for the report. He commended the fire departments for the progress they have made and noted that all three precincts' 2012 proposed precinct budgets are less than their 2011 budgets.

At Monday's hearing at Ossipee Town Hall, West Ossipee resident Bob Pustell said, "Let's not make the only focus the bottom line." He noted that the most drastic budget reductions and management changes did happen in West Ossipee in 2011, but those were measures to bring that precinct more in line with the other two and not cuts the voters can expect every year. "Let's not penny-wise ourselves into pound-foolish," he said.

The West Ossipee precinct was able to cut over $100,000 in administrative and other costs, largely due to the commissioners' decision not to fill the full-time chief's position that included full medical and retirement benefits. The informational brochure that accompanied the survey states the three precincts have saved over $100,000 and a few at the hearing wanted it clarified that all of that cost savings was generated by one precinct, West Ossipee.

In 2012, West Ossipee commissioners will be asking for $19,500 to fund the salary for a part-time, no-benefit fire chief position. This represents administrative salary. The person selected to fill the position will also receive an hourly wage in addition to the salary for any hours spent on emergency calls. Ossipee Corner's fire chief receives a salary of $45,000 and no additional pay for calls. A call to Center Ossipee Fire Station for information about that chief's anticipated 2012 salary was not returned as of press time.

Several times at Monday's hearing, firefighters were thanked for the work they do for the town. Selectman Morton Leavitt said in the three years since the merger issue has been under discussion, the selectmen have received no direct complaints about the job the firefighters do or the service they provide. Any complaints, he said, have been related to the inequity in fees charged by the different precincts and the top-heavy administration costs in West Ossipee. Leavitt said he also "voted" no to the merger on his survey. Selectman Kathleen Maloney declined to reveal to the crowd of 36 at Monday's hearing how she had answered her survey.

West Ossipee Acting Chief Carl Huddleston said over the past few months the three fire departments are working very well together and no calls for emergency service have gone unanswered.

He, as well as Center Ossipee Fire Chief Michael Brownell and Ossipee Corner Fire Chief Adam Riley acknowledged the talk of merger has caused uncertainty among their members, but staffing levels remain average and it has not had an impact on their response to emergencies.

Once the survey results are tallied, if the majority of respondents are opposed to the merger idea moving forward, "It is a dead issue," said Merrow.

If the majority tells selectmen to continue to move forward, next course of action will be one of two options. In the first option, each precinct would place an article on their precinct meeting warrant asking voters in their precinct if they are in favor of merger with the other two precincts. If even one of the three precincts vote it down, again it is a "dead issue."

The other option is to have the merger question on the March town ballot, with all voters voting on the question on the Tuesday prior to town meeting, all on the same day regardless of the precinct they live in. Normally, the only items allowed on the Election Day ballot are election of town officers and amendments to the town's zoning ordinance. In order to have the question on the ballot, the selectmen would have to get state legislative approval to do so. Merrow, who is also a state legislator, said going through the process of introducing a bill, having it voted on and getting it back to the town for March ballot will likely mean voters will not see the question on the ballot until March 2013.

Huddleston and Brownell said that even if the citizens do not want the merger now, the fire departments will move forward with creating a plan for the merger that might happen in the future. Ossipee residents Frank Riley and Bruce Parsons both spoke in favor of passing the merger question, which would force a timeline and deadline date for that plan to be finalized.

The final of the four hearings will be Saturday, Jan. 14, at 10 a.m. at Center Ossipee Fire Station.

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