April 4, 2018 at 5:30 p.m.

Town committee recommends approving larger firefighting contract

By HSJ Online [email protected]

A town committee overseeing emergency services will recommend the Town Council approve a new contract with the Hope Volunteer Fire Department -- with a bump of just over $7,000 a year over previous contracts.

The emergency services committee met Monday and will suggest the council approve the contract with the town at a total of $76,072, compared to the $69,000 originally proposed and in previous years.

The fire department operated without a formal contract, and without any money coming in, through October of 2015. Town Council members held off on approving the contract due to ongoing concerns over a lawsuit over a new fire station being built on the east side of town. But Town Council members said they were interested in quickly approving a contract once that issue was resolved.

The firefighters presented their contract earlier this month and the Town Council held off on a decision until the emergency services committee weighed in.

Fire Chief Randy Wood pointed out that some of the contract increase came from a need to purchase new equipment, perform needed tests and do maintenance on equipment. For example, he said he would like to see the first responders with medic training be issued take-home bags of medical equipment so they could respond more quickly directly from home, rather than having to go back to the station to outfit themselves before a medic run.

He also said that the department is facing aging equipment such as its breathing apparatuses.

Most of the discussion centered around concerns from committee member Tim Shoaf that the town wait until its financial adviser, Reedy Financial, come back with a recommendation on whether the town was getting what it was paying for in the contract and whether that payment was a good deal for taxpayers. Shoaf also was concerned about the town's liability should the fire department's budget for equipment and maintenance turn out to be inadequate.

"I think it would be great to get the Reedy report back and build from that because it gives you a base of everything," Shoaf.

Shoaf maintained that the only time the town has leverage over the fire department is during the contract negotiations. After the department gets its annual contract approved, the firefighters can do what they want with the town money, he said.

Committee Chairman Rick Everroad suggested that fire departments are almost always underfunded and stressed that the average taxpayer with a $100,000 property was only paying about $60 a year for fire protection from the Hope volunteers.

"Roughly five bucks a month is what I am paying," Everroad said. "If my life, my property, my kids, my grandkids, my wife's life is worth $5 a month, we are getting a bargain."

Pete King, attorney for the firefighters, said that in his opinion the concerns over liability were exaggerated and the town could be putting itself into more liability by adding more specific details and requirements to the contract. King also suggested that the existing agreement between the town and firefighters could put the town under more jeopardy.

Town Councilman Ohmer Miller, also a member of the emergency services committee, made the suggestion that the committee recommend approval of the contract.

Although the town and firefighters went without payment for most of last year, the two sides did adopt a memorandum of understanding in October and the first payments were made in December. The town paid bills directly for the fire department and by the end of the year had paid about $31,000 in bills, or about $38,000 less than the $69,000 the department had received in previous years.

Town Manager Melina Fox has previously stressed that if the department had submitted more bills, it would have been able to be paid more.

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