CUMBERLAND — Town fire and rescue services will merge July 1 if the Town Council approves a proposed 2010 budget.
A presentation on the merger and a public hearing on the proposed budget are set for April 13.
Town Manager Bill Shane said he expects to see a lot of emotion and opposition to the merger, but also hopes that citizens will also appreciate the nearly $60,000 savings it will mean to the town at a fiscally challenging time.
Part of the merger includes dissolving the regional paramedic program shared by Falmouth, Yarmouth, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. According to Shane, Falmouth has already announced it will remove itself from the regional program, which provides the towns with shared paramedic coverage. Yarmouth had said it is on board for another year, but was expected to leave the group within a few years because of a similar shift toward consolidating fire and rescue services.
If approved by the Town Council, a merger of the Fire and Rescue departments will mean that all full-time firefighters will be cross-trained in emergency medicine, either at a paramedic or EMT level. In reverse, it means that all full-time paramedics will be trained for fighting fires.
All current full-time staff in both departments have been offered the appropriate training, if they wish to stay with the merged department.
If approved, Fire Department Chief Dan Small will take over as chief of the joint department; Rescue Chief Chris Bolduc will move into a new position of operations manager for the town, making him part of the town’s top administrative team. Though the change will end Bolduc’s 19-year tenure as rescue chief and responding paramedic, he said “I’m still in town, and I’ll have a (paramedic) bag.”
The new department, which would be based out of Central Fire
Station and the Whitman house next door, will provide 24-hour paramedic and fire coverage, which improves town
fire coverage, according the Shane.
One firefighter/paramedic and one firefighter/EMT would
always be on duty, with support coming from Public Works staff
and on-call volunteers trained in either or both fields. The firefighter/paramedic would be on a 24-hour shift, while the firefighter/EMT would be on a rotating 7- or 9-hour shift.
An argument in favor of the merger is that it will add one paramedic on duty in the region at any given time, even though it will reduce the number available locally – while two in the region are always on duty under the current system, three will always be on duty under the proposed system. Through mutual aid, those paramedics could respond to any town needing additional support. Currently, two local paramedics are on duty during the day.
Arguments against the merger include the local reduction in coverage from two paramedics to one, as well as the fact that, because those paramedics will also be firefighters, they could be busy fighting a fire when an EMS call comes in.
Mutual aid and on-call staff are expected to address the potential issue of simultaneous emergencies. Shane said that priority will go to medical care, and added that in Cumberland, there are an average of just five structure fires annually.
Financial benefits to the town include savings of $58,000 a year and the ability to preserve an on-call, volunteer staff rather than becoming a “career department,” which requires paying more full-time staff.
According to Shane, the $58,000 savings includes the added cost of cross-training current staff, upkeep of the Whitman house, which has been and is currently rented as a residence, and revenue lost from exchanging that renter for the ability to provide beds for paramedics on 24-hour shifts.
Not every town official is enthusiastic about the change.
Town Councilor and paramedic Bill Stiles said Tuesday that the merger appears to translate into reduced EMS service for residents.
“There’s plenty of support out there that EMS on its own works better than merged with a fire department,” Stiles said. And while mutual aid sounds good on paper, he added, it increases response time to emergencies.
“I just don’t think (the merger) equates to what we have now,” he said. “We have to look for efficiencies and save money, (but) I’m just not comfortable” with the way this proposal does that.
Shane said Tuesday that in a perfect world, the departments would remain separate.
Two dedicated departments do provide a higher level of emergency service, he said, “but in reality, we’re struggling for every dollar we take in. It’s a compromise, but it’s a compromise we can make work. We can excel in a unified plan.”
Small will give a public and televised presentation on the proposed merger at the April 13 Town Council meeting prior to the first of two public hearings on the municipal budget. A second public hearing is scheduled for April 27. Both meetings are at 7 p.m. in Town Hall.
The 2010 budget proposal that will go to public hearings on April 13 and 27 involves a total spending increase of almost $18,000 from the current budget.
Combined with an expected revenue drop of $177,000, the proposed budget would add 17 cents the property tax rate. The mil rate is also affected by the school budget, which has not yet been approved, so a final property tax increase cannot yet be estimated.
The proposed spending plan includes these measures:
• Town Hall will remain closed on Fridays.
• Salaries will remain at January’s reduced levels, when 14 salaried employees took a 5 percent pay cut.
• Wages for hourly and salaried employees will be frozen.
• Police have agreed to give back next year’s raises.
• Public Works employees have already given back nearly $20,000 in overtime pay, which they exchanged for comp time.
• Three full-time employees will be reduced to part-time through early retirement.
• Part-time employees will lose benefits.
• Some part-time work in administration and recreation will be eliminated.
• Fire and rescue departments will merge.
The proposed budget includes $240,000 for a Route 88 reconstruction project that will address drainage issues and add a pedestrian lane. It also anticipates the sale of a fire truck for between $75,000 and $90,000. The budget does not include fee increases, except for a proposed fee for dumping of brush and leaves and an increase to victuallers license fees.
The public hearings in April will begin at 7 p.m. in Town Hall. Both hearings will be televised.