TOM WARD - Cumberland’s experiment in fire governance fails

TOM WARD - Cumberland’s experiment in fire governance fails

There were two important stories for Cumberland readers last week. Both by Ethan Shorey, one noted the explosion of overtime costs as a result of the Cumberland Fire Department’s injured-on-duty claims. The other was the town budget story and how Town Council members, in a feud with Mayor Bill Murray, gave more money to schools, taking some of it from various town hall accounts.

In the Fire Department story, it was noted that the budget will go up by about $460,000, or 5.8 percent. The overtime line will go up by $470,073, because the past 12 months was a bad year for both firefighters and taxpayers, with 11 major injury incidents.

Because of those injuries and the fear of more in the future, “Taxes did go up the maximum we could tax,” said Fire Board Chairwoman Cindy Ouellette. Bills are arriving now.

On the other side of town, the council took the mayor’s “contingency account from $5,000 to zero,” some of which is used for a Town Hall Christmas party, according to the mayor. Bah, humbug!

Cumberland is a town where actual dollars available to firefighters in overtime will go up by a half million dollars. But at Town Hall, the staff will be lucky to get an employee-paid box of Dunkin’ munchkins and water from the bubbler for their Christmas party. Yes, we’re in the Twilight Zone. And it’s embarrassing.

The source of this taxpayer pain is a separate fire department, with its own taxing authority. Created four years ago in an agreed upon plan backed by the voters, fire districts, and the General Assembly, the unified department was supposed to create savings with shared men and resources. Everyone expected that sharing of firefighters and equipment across fire district lines would lead to savings. Unfortunately, those savings never materialized.

In an April story, Ouellette told us that Cumberland’s consolidated department may never lead to savings, and that other towns considering merger should get the notion of savings out of their heads.

Today, the situation is bad enough that a hoped-for new fire station in Ashton is out of reach. Further, the state’s Auditor General office has been called in to offer help.

It’s probably time to move on to the next step – making the town’s fire department a municipal department under the purview of the Town Council and mayor. While a fire department – with its costly personnel mandates – is different than police, parks, highway and municipal departments, I’m sure councilors can handle it. They do in almost every other city and town.

Consolidation was an experiment, and one I and a large majority of taxpayers supported. I don’t blame any politician from the past who brought this upon us. It should have worked, but we have to face the fact that it failed.

So far, Mayor Bill Murray and challenger Jeff Mutter have announced that they want to serve the next two years as mayor. While the fire department might not be “top of mind” because it is currently independent from the town and its budget, I expect voters will be looking for a better answer here.

The genesis of the disagreement between the two candidates, as I understand it, is school funding. While Murray has tried to hold the line on spending, others who back Mutter have for years sought more money for schools. In the backdrop, however, looms a fire department consolidation that has failed, invited state oversight, and offers up large tax increases annually.

This fall, candidates for office will not be able to get off the hook by saying “That’s not my job” with regards to the fire department. Whether taxpayers pay from their left pocket (school/municipal taxes) or right pocket (fire taxes) makes no difference to a family’s bottom line.

My question for both candidates is: Do you support the current configuration of a separate fire department, with its own taxing authority, or do you think it should be made a municipal department? And if you think it needs to be a municipal department, what will you do – and when – to see that it happens?

Ward is publisher of The Valley Breeze

Comments

Thank you for this piece, I also thought it was a good idea at first, but now agree that it should be a Town department under Town oversight.
I also believe that a look needs to be give to the school committee makeup, I suggest that the two elected at large positions be changed to one appointed by the Mayor and the other by the Town Council. This hopefully would provide greater communications and some oversight in that budget process. A different idea I know, but we need some out of box thinking here to get a handle on the budget and tax increases.
I would support regionalization but don't suppose that would ever happen in this state.