FALMOUTH — Despite assurances from the fire chief that closing Pleasant Hill Fire Station would not jeopardize the level of service to the area, town councilors Monday postponed making a decision on its future until their May 11 meeting.
They did, however, unanimously approve the fiscal 2010 budget, which reflects the station’s closure, saving the town $50,000 per year and a total of $1 million over the next 20 years.
During their deliberations, councilors considered an order that would allocate $10,000 from undesignated funds to keep the station open through the next fiscal year, giving them more time to decide its long-term fate. But after several amendments to the order failed to pass, the original order was tabled to give Town Manager Nathan Poore and Fire Chief Howard Rice time to investigate hidden costs.
Although she acknowledged the process involving the Pleasant Hill community could have been better, Councilor Cathy Breen said she trusted Rice’s statistics and was convinced there would be no compromise to public safety. During the initial discussion, she compared the proposal to extend the station’s life to removing a bandage.
“(It) feels like pulling the Band-Aid off slowly and I’m a believer in ripping the Band-Aid off quickly,” she said. “I don’t know what more there is to learn that’s really going to make a difficult change not difficult.”
Councilor Tony Payne cautioned that next year’s possible shortfall in town revenues and the possibility of the state repealing at least 50 percent of the excise tax, a figure he said would be $600,000 to $800,000 for Falmouth, could make next year’s budget process even more difficult, requiring substantial cuts in expenses and possibly an increase in the tax rate.
“To me, it makes all the sense in the world to keep paring now so that the pain is not going to be as great that we are going to have to face next year,” Payne said. “Despite the (fire station’s) wonderful, long history, today’s numbers are not stellar, are not adequate to continue our investment in that facility.”
But Councilor Joe Wrobleski said he is an advocate of “trust, but verify” when considering the station’s closure and supported the order that would keep it open for another year to verify its ultimate closure would be prudent.
“It’s a middle ground; an opportunity for us to wait and not move so quickly to the precipice,” Wrobleski said.
When the council later voted to table the order, Breen reminded councilors they had instructed the School Board to cut its budget, which it did despite additional cuts in state funding. She admonished them not to take the $10,000 from undesignated funds, saying it would directly contradict their unanimous agreement not to increase spending, but instead encouraged them to cut something else from the budget.
“I think taking money out of the fund balance is cheating,” Breen said. “If we’re going to spend more money on the station it’s incumbent on us to find other ways to cut, not to simply pull money from our savings.”
During the public hearing portion of the meeting – the third hearing that addressed the station since discussion began mid-March – many Pleasant Hill neighborhood residents once again expressed their displeasure at closing the station, both for safety and sentimental reasons.
In an April 24 memo Rice wrote to follow up on questions from the public, he said “… this station can close because we can offer the same or better level of service with coverage from Central Station and Portland Ladder 4 and moving the night time paramedic from the Cumberland Rescue Department to Central Station,” an addition that is included in the fiscal 2010 budget. Rice also said the concern some residents voiced about losing volunteer firefighters was unfounded.
“Although each member will need to speak for themselves,” Rice wrote, “I have not had one member tell me that he would not remain active if the station closed, and five members have already confirmed their intent to remain with the department.”
Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or firstname.lastname@example.org.