Bellows Falls firefighters feel the burn

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BELLOWS FALLS — Five members of the Professional Firefighters of Vermont rallied outside the Bellows Falls Opera House on Wednesday night with yellow signs carrying slogans that read, "Don't cut public safety," "Staffing = Safety," "Support Bellows Falls Firefighters."

Despite their pleas, the Bellows Falls Village Board of Trustees unanimously voted to cut all four full-time fire department positions. The vote was taken at a special meeting to administer cuts to the fiscal year 2018 village budget.

On July 20, Bellows Falls voters approved a budget that would raise only $1,700,000 by taxes. The original budget by the trustee board proposed raising $1,941,290 by taxes. The vote left the trustees $241,290 to cut.

The Bellows Falls Village Budget is composed of four key services: The waste water department, the water department, the police department, and the fire department. The police and fire departments make up about 89 percent of the village budget, Municipal Manager Shane O'Keefe said.

After consulting with the village's attorney and reviewing a 2013 fire department analysis, the trustees determined that the bulk of the money they needed to cut would come out of the fire department.

"Bellows Falls isn't a sleepy little place where nothing happens," Whit Blauvelt said before the meeting.

Ann DiBernardo, a Rockingham Select Board member, agreed. "We have an opioid problem in the village," she said. "The police do not carry Narcan. If you cut the fire department, who will administer the Narcan?"

DiBernardo said she understood the position that the trustees were in, having had to make cuts herself, but she urged the board to think of the consequences.

"This isn't going to be something we take pleasure in," Trustee Board President Myles Mickle said.

Before board members made the motion to cut all four full-time firefighter positions, they allowed for public discussion.

Donna Cenate asked the board if it had been in consultation with the police and fire departments while making its decision.

Mickle replied that they had taken the recommendations of O'Keefe, who had been in contact with the departments.

Cenate asked whether or not the board had a contingency plan if there was a fire.

"You're just going to wing it?" she asked.

Mickle explained that, due to union contracts, firefighters had to have 125 days notice before leaving their posts. Mickle said the board intends to use that 125 days to come up with a contingency plan.

Many audience members expressed dismay for the families of firefighters.

Brad Reed from Professional Firefighters of Vermont emphasized to the board that it was eliminating four full-time jobs of people who live in the Bellows Falls area. "And they're some of the lowest paid firefighters in Vermont," Reed said. "They're not doing this for the money."

Deputy Fire Chief Steve Cenate was disappointed.

"Is this a part of the long going desire to eliminate career firefighters?" he asked.

Trustee Deborah Wright said the decision was not personal. "We did this with the counsel of our lawyer," she said.

Some residents were angry that the vote was taking so long.

Eleanor Landry was watching the meeting from home when she became so enraged that she felt compelled to come in and tell the trustees how she felt. She said the rate her taxes were going up was forcing her to sell her home.

"You just got to cut from wherever," she said. "Never mind other people."

Wade Masure asked why there was so much hemming and hawing around the decision. "You're the board," he said. "Pull your seats up to the table and do what you have to."

Mickle explained that the decision was a tough one and he felt that everybody needed to have a chance to say their piece. "But I am a hemmer and a hawer," he said.

In addition to eliminating the four firefighter positions, the board agreed to not hire a 10th police officer. Board members also did away with their $800, and in the president's case $1,000, stipends to stand in solidarity with those whose positions they cut. More potential cuts will be discussed at the Joint Board meeting on Aug. 29.

Harmony Birch can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext.153. Or you can follow her @birchharmony.

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