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Topsham selectmen cool to charging for fire calls

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Topsham selectmen cool to charging for fire calls

TOPSHAM — Although they took no vote on the matter last week, a majority of the Board of Selectmen was clearly opposed to a proposal to charge residents and businesses for fire calls.

Selectman Sandra Consolini proposed the fees in response to the Sept. 9 fire at the Grimmel Industries metal recycling business. Also in response to the fire, last month Consolini introduced an item concerning the barring or conditional allowance of any future large-scale, open-field recycling facilities in Topsham. The board voted 3-1, with Consolini opposed, to take no action on that matter.

Consolini last week said 120 firefighters responded to the fire, pointing out that the Fire Department is volunteer-based "and it only gets paid when it has to go to a fire."

If a fire in town is found to be due to negligence, she suggested, the town could charge a user fee to recover the money spent to battle the blaze.

Selectman Don Russell, in his first meeting, said he was concerned that if fees are charged for fire calls, residents may wait too long to call for help when they know they have caused the fire, trying instead to extinguish it themselves. That delay could result in greater loss of property, he said, or loss of life.

Selectman Steve Edmondson said false alarms for fire and police have been addressed in the past through an ordinance. After so many false alarms in a calendar year, the caller would be billed; as a result, he said, the number of such calls started to decrease.

Edmondson speculated that a large number of fires are caused by some degree of negligence, such as chimney fires caused by flues not being cleaned.

"How many times has the Fire Department responded to the Highlands for burned toast?," he asked Chief Ken Brillant.

"Many," Brillant responded.

"Do we start billing 90-year-old ladies because their toast burned?," Edmondson continued.

He wondered whether business owners would want to move to Topsham if they knew they would be billed if their employees start a fire.

Selectman Jim Trusiani said charging a resident, who may already be struggling with taxes and was just burned out of his or her house, would be "a slap in the face."

Brillant pointed out that if a fire is determined to have been set intentionally, and the suspect is found guilty through the court system, then billing through the court as restitution for the cost of extinguishing the fire is allowed.

He noted that Grimmel paid about $2,300 for the fuel used by emergency vehicles and food consumed by firefighters at the scene.

Town Manager Jim Ashe said Brillant "did send (a letter) to the Grimmels about the fuel that was used, and about the food, and they sent a check right away to pay for that. ... They don't have to, but companies usually jump in to try to help with that (kind of) situation."

The board moved on from the agenda item without taking a vote.

Ron Riendeau was re-elected board chairman at the end of the meeting by a vote of 4-0 (Riendeau abstained), and Trusiani was elected vice chairman by the same margin.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.