When a mobile home in Benton burned to the ground a year ago, no one knew it would lead to a fundamental change in the structure of Fairfield’s Fire Department.
But the April 2013 fire, which left Benton resident Clyde Berry, 82, without a home, touched off a sequence of events that culminated this month with the creation of Fairfield-Benton Fire Rescue, a new name for the department that signifies a formal union between the two communities.
Town officials said Benton and Fairfield made the change in part to prevent Benton from being billed for fire services from Waterville and Winslow.
The daily operations of the Fairfield-based department, which employs seven full-time firefighters including Chief Duane Bickford, will not change.
But the agreement, approved April 9 by the Fairfield Town Council, fundamentally alters the 100-year-old cooperative relationship of the two communities. In the past, Benton has been a client of Fairfield, paying money each year for the provision of fire services at a rate that was constantly renegotiated. Under the new inter-local agreement, Benton is more of a partner in the enterprise and will assume some responsibility and oversight of the department.
The department’s budget will now be submitted to the elected leaders of both Fairfield and Benton for review.
“We now have a say if we want to add something or take something away or think something’s not right. We now have that option of sitting at the table,” Benton Selectman Dan Chamberlain said.
Winslow Fire Chief David LaFountain said he came up with the idea to bill Benton for the mobile home fire, which occupied his firefighters for three hours in the early hours of April 29.
Winslow has always sent out such bills to the state when responding to forest fires on state-owned land, but had never billed Benton previously. Winslow and Waterville’s bills, based on the personnel and equipment costs, were about $800 each.
The change, LaFountain said, was because of increasing budget pressures on both the department and the taxpayers of Winslow.
“Here is one instance in which our taxpayers are spending resources on a community and not getting anything back,” he said.
Typically, when firefighters in one community respond to an emergency in a neighboring community, it is under a mutual aid agreement between the towns. Under mutual aid, each community benefits because they both give and receive help as it is needed.
But LaFountain said Winslow was giving to Benton and not receiving anything in return.
“Since Benton does not have a fire department, how can you have a mutual aid agreement?” he said. “People will call and say they want Winslow’s ladder truck. We go out and do it, being a good neighbor. But when it comes time for the ladder truck to be repaired, that costs the town money and yet other communities have a free hand.”
LaFountain said he raised the matter with Winslow Town Manager Michael Heavener as a possible way to improve the town’s bottom line.
Chamberlain said that he was surprised to receive the bills from Winslow and Waterville. His understanding was that, since Benton paid some of the costs of the Fairfield Fire Department budget, Benton was covered under existing mutual aid agreements between Fairfield, Winslow and Waterville. Benton typically shoulders about a quarter of the total Fairfield Fire Department budget, which has been a little more than $700,000 in recent years.
Because Benton paid for a portion of the services that Fairfield provides to Winslow in mutual aid situations, Chamberlain felt the town shouldn’t have to pay the bill.
He called up Bickford and Fairfield Town Manager Josh Reny to see what they thought.
“They said, âDon’t pay them,'” Chamberlain said. “I said, âWell, I wasn’t planning on it.'”
Chamberlain and LaFountain said the bills touched off a round of discussions between town officials in Fairfield, Waterville and Winslow during which officials agreed that the bills would remain unpaid, but that Benton and Fairfield would restructure their longstanding arrangement.
Now, Reny said, it is clear that when the newly-named department responds to fires in Waterville and Winslow, it counts as mutual aid from both Benton and Fairfield.
“It kind of removes any question of whether or not mutual aid should be given to Benton,” he said.
Bickford said the change will make for easier budgeting. Now that they’re operating under a long-term agreement instead of a two-year contract, he said he can make long-term plans that view the two towns as a single response area.
The fire station on Lawrence Avenue, which has many Benton residents in its staff, is ideally located to serve both communities, he said, and falls about in the middle of the response area, which is about 82 square miles.
The towns have a combined population of about 9,400 people, a population base that helps to justify and support a fire department with a professional staff.
LaFountain said he doesn’t think that the new inter-local agreement has changed anything, but he now feels he’s done his duty.
“This was a discussion that needed to be had,” he said. “Now we move on. No hard feelings. We move on, we work together. We have to.”
As has been the case in negotiated contracts over the last few decades, the amount Benton pays will be based on what percentage of calls come from within the town’s borders. However, under the new agreement, the calculation will be done using five-year averages, which town leaders said should help budgeting issues by smoothing out fluctuations. In 2013 there were 924 calls for service in Fairfield, 322 in Benton and 36 in other communities.
For the current year, Benton paid about $160,000 into the Fairfield Fire Department’s $727,000 budget, which will not be significantly affected by the move, Reny said.
Reny said new signs will be phased in as equipment is replaced.
“We’re not going to assume a bunch of costs trying to rebrand it,” he said.