February 22, 2012TILTON — A petitioned article on the 2012 warrant is shaping up to be a potential hot topic of discussion at the upcoming Tilton-Northfield Fire District meeting next month
The article attempts to address the issue of where the fire chief and other key district employees reside. Article 8 states, "To see if the TNFD voters will vote to not require residency as a condition of employment with the Fire District for positions such as Fire Chief, Captain and other fire/emergency personnel positions. Majority voter required."
If passed, the article could possibly overturn a recent 2-1 vote by the TNFD Board of Commissioners, requiring the fire chief to move within five and a half miles of the Central Street Station in Tilton.
In the original Letter of Employment signed by Chief Brad Ober in November of 2010, it was stipulated the commission would, at a later date, define boundaries of residency for the position. During a regular district meeting last week, Commissioners Pat Clark and Paul Auger voted to finally define that requirement as anywhere within five and a half miles of the downtown station.
"We're trying to make sure we can get the best response time we can afford," said Clark late last week.
He noted that the radius would not limit the chief to any particular town, citing areas of Tilton, Northfield, Sanbornton, Franklin and Belmont that fall within the specified distance.
Ober currently resides just over 20 miles away, off I-93 in the Ashland-New Hampton area. Clark said he estimates Ober's trip to Tilton for an emergency response to be approximately 20-30 minutes, although the chief has told him he can arrive in less time.
Commissioner Tom Gallant voted against the motion for a residency requirement, stating response time, and not mileage, is more important as a measuring tool, should one need to be stipulated by the commission.
"This was unconscionable to me. There are areas that fall within that 5.5 miles which could take longer for a response because of the narrow dirt roads or heavy traffic along the Route 3 corridor," Gallant said.
Petitioners feel any residency requirement is against the best interest of the town, fearing they could lose the current chief.
TNFD budget committee member Jane Alden was one of those who signed the petitioned article, and she said ultimately, the district could lose a very capable and well-liked chief, which would also cost the district more money.
"My concern, primarily, is the cost to the taxpayers. We could be without a chief again, and spend more money on the search and training involved in hiring a new chief," she said.
Technology, Alden said, keeps Ober in direct contact with firefighters and EMT's on the scene of any emergency. The command vehicle at Ober's disposal is highly equipped, and capable of allowing him to remain in control without being on the scene.
"That's the important thing being lost in this — the communication capabilities and technology we have with that vehicle," said Alden. "This is a ridiculous requirement in this day and age of high technology."
Selectman Pat Consentino also opposes the residency requirements. Consentino said employing people who do not live within a town or district is common practice, and she felt there was no good reason for the motion to define residency boundaries to be executed. She agreed with Alden that with the command vehicle at Ober's disposal from home in his off-duty hours, he can readily fulfill his duties as chief.
"That vehicle is part of the package. It benefits our safety that he has that vehicle for use at a moment's notice. He can take charge even as he's responding," she said.
Clark maintains that the chief is bound by contract to abide by a residency requirement, but Gallant disagreed. The letter of employment is not the signed contract with the chief, he said.
Clark, however, cites a court ruling out of Seabrook from 1993, which upheld a residency requirement for a police chief.
"There are plenty of towns who have residency requirements in the Lakes Region. We're modeling this after Franklin, which also has a 5.5 miles requirement for their fire chief," Clark said.
Opponents of the issue point out there are also many fire chiefs in the area who live more than 20 miles from their place of employment.
One thing both sides agree on, however, is that Ober has done a "tremendous job" since taking the helm of the department in December of 2010. All parties involved said he is well-respected and very involved in the community, and it would be a loss to the towns of Tilton and Northfield should he decide to leave the district.
"It's the job he's doing that's important to me, not where he lives," said Gallant. "He's done much better than anyone I can remember in my tenure with the district since 1986."
A vote on the issue will take place at the annual district meeting, scheduled for Monday, March 19, at 7 p.m. in the Winnisquam Regional High School cafetorium.