FARMINGTON — Selectmen and budget committee members will recommend that voters increase the fire budget to $380,056, up 20 percent from last year, at the annual Town Meeting on March 24.

The four selectmen present voted unanimously Wednesday evening to recommend the $62,714 increase, which would finance increasing the number of scheduled weekday staff members from two to three firefighters and adding two day staff members for the weekend, when none was scheduled previously.

Town Manager Richard Davis said the recommendation does not mean the town is creating a full-time fire department instead of a volunteer fire department. Instead, it is avoiding the commitment of paying for a full-time staff by paying a rotating list of the volunteer firefighters to work the shifts.

“It’s to preserve our call department without going full time,” he said.

The Fire Department is one of three departments whose budgets voters will be asked to increase, and it’s the only department asking for an increase of more than 5 percent.

Fire Chief Terry Bell first requested a budget of $411,828, or a 30 percent increase, to hire more scheduled staff members and combat poor retention rates.

The department has been reduced to 25 members after 18 volunteers left over the past five years, Bell said.

“Over half of them are over 50 years old. … It’s not a good scenario,” he said.

The selectmen agreed to hold Wednesday’s public hearing on the matter after the last board meeting, when Selectman Josh Bell asked the fire chief about whether there was a less expensive staffing scenario that the department hasn’t considered.

In the face of dramatic cuts in state funding this year, the selectman has focused throughout the budget cycle on possible reductions, recommending more than $100,000 in possible reductions at the last board meeting. Along with the request to reduce the proposed fire budget, Josh Bell previously suggested more than $100,000 in line-item cuts, ranging from reducing $75 from the Fire Department postage allotment, which other board members approved, to eliminating an open Police Department position, which the majority of the board voted down.

At Wednesday’s public hearing, Chief Terry Bell also recommended the board and the budget committee approve the 20 percent budget increase that would add another weekday firefighter and two each day on the weekend.

Other alternate scenarios presented to the board were to either increase the budget by 12 percent and hire two firefighters for seven days a week, or to increase the budget 22 percent and hire three firefighters for seven days a week.

Bell said the department had a 45-minute discussion Tuesday night about which of the different scenarios was the best option.

Chairman Ryan Morgan said he was “sure it will generate good discussion” among voters at the Town Meeting.

The meeting about the alternate scenarios was intended to be a public hearing, but a winter storm Wednesday kept residents home and reduced attendees to a handful of Fire Department members.

The nine-member budget committee was unable to hold a vote on the matter because only five members attended and two had to abstain because they are members of the Fire Department.

Chairman Clyde Ross said he would call the missing members and hold another vote Thursday. Budget committee members in attendance anticipated passing the same recommendation as the selectmen.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252 kschroeder@centralmaine.com