HALLOWELL — Two letters from the Augusta city manager proposing a change to the automatic fire aid agreement between Augusta and Hallowell led to a lengthy discussion about the merits, benefits and timing of the proposal Monday during Hallowell’s City Council meeting.

During the meeting, Councilor Michael Frett said Augusta City Manager William Bridgeo’s proposal that Hallowell pay $100,000 for automatic mutual aid from the Augusta Fire Department “feels like extortion.” Frett, who didn’t return a call seeking comment Tuesday, questioned the timing of the Augusta proposal, coming after Hallowell’s decision earlier this year to maintain its Fire Department rather than contract fire services with the city of Augusta.

“Augusta is basically holding a gun to our heads saying we won’t get their fancy toys unless we pay for them,” Frett told the council. He asked why Augusta hadn’t proposed a paid automatic aid agreement over the last three years and instead waiting until now to bring it up. Hallowell currently doesn’t pay Augusta for automatic mutual aid.

Bridgeo sent two letters — one dated April 6 and the other May 8 — to Hallowell City Manager Nate Rudy about the agreement between the cities. In the April 6 letter, Bridgeo proposed compensation “in the range of $100,000” to continue the automatic aid agreement as it’s constituted now. He also stated Augusta wouldn’t seek compensation if Hallowell chose to enter a mutual aid agreement similar to what Augusta has with other neighboring communities.

In the letter sent Monday, Bridgeo stated the Augusta Fire Department no longer would provide automatic mutual aid to Hallowell beginning July 1, but it would continue to respond to standard mutual aid requests when needed. On Tuesday, Bridgeo said he has no ill will toward Frett over his comments and wants to work with Hallowell to forge an arrangement that is best for both cities.

Councilor Kara Walker said it’s important for the council and Hallowell residents to know exactly what they’d be getting from Augusta for that payment, but Rudy said he has yet to see a specific proposal from Augusta outlining terms and cost.

“In the absence of that critical analysis, there’s been a lot of misunderstandings and misconceptions,” Rudy said.

Bridgeo’s letters, Rudy said, underscore the need for the two sides to get together and clarify what the actual proposal is.

“We’re trying to be sensitive to Augusta’s expressed concern that they feel they’ve expended a lot of resources in Hallowell,” Rudy said. “We continue to want to separate the facts from the mythology of what’s happening here and to make a fact and data-based decision that’s good for Hallowell and Augusta.”

TYPES OF AID

Rudy said that because none of these issues were raised by Augusta until after the Hallowell council made its decision to maintain the city’s Fire Department, there is a now a perception, real or not, about the timing of it that officials need to deal with.

Bridgeo said he could see how some people might think the timing of the proposal is suspect following the council’s decision to preserve the Hallowell Fire Department, but he said this is a conversation that has been ongoing for more than a year. It wasn’t until Bridgeo and other city officials had meetings with Hallowell’s Fire Services Committee and became aware of several pieces of data that the automatic aid agreement was called into question.

“I was entirely unaware that our mutual aid agreement with Hallowell was different than the (other) communities we have agreements with,” Bridgeo said Tuesday. “It wasn’t until recently that I learned of the distinction between automatic and mutual aid.”

According to the agreement signed in 2014, the Augusta Fire Department responds to any reported structure fire in Hallowell. It means, essentially, that as soon as someone calls 911 and says there’s a fire, Augusta sends multiple vehicles and firefighters, including firetrucks and an ambulance, whether there actually is a fire or not.

“The data showed we were providing a much more comprehensive service than we typically do to any regular mutual aid community,” Bridgeo said. “The taxpayers of Augusta pay a heavy burden to fund a department with this many resources, so it would be only be fair for Hallowell to provide compensation for that level of service.”

Rudy, however, has said he hasn’t seen any evidence or data that proves that Hallowell is putting an unjust burden on the Augusta department. He said the numbers in the committee report didn’t equate to the burden Augusta has referenced.

The committee report stated that from 2012 to 2014, the Hallowell Fire Department responded to 392 calls, of which 49 — or 12.5 percent — were fire-related, including 24 structure fires. That amounts to an average of 16.2 fire-related responses per year. The Augusta Fire Department didn’t respond to the 343 incidents unrelated to fire, under terms of the automatic aid agreement, which states the department agrees to respond automatically “upon notification of any reported structure fire or a condition that dispatch may deem to be a possible structure fire, provided resources are available.”

Hallowell’s Second Street fire station is more than 186 years old and doesn’t have the capacity or infrastructure to sustain a modern fire department. The city created a Fire Services Committee to study the issue and come up with a recommendation for the council to consider. After more than 13 months of discussion, meetings and workshops, the committee recommended contracting fire services with the city of Augusta. However, the council unanimously voted instead to lease space in an unbuilt station in Farmingdale. After a petition forced the council to reconsider its decision — and an anonymous pledge of up to $1 million for a new station in Hallowell — the council decided to maintain an autonomous volunteer Hallowell Fire Department.

Hallowell Fire Chief Jim Owens said he doesn’t want an automatic aid agreement with Augusta. He’d prefer to take time to assess the situation before deciding if the Augusta Fire Department should be called to a fire scene. He told the council Monday night that it usually takes less than a minute for him or an officer to ascertain whether help from Augusta is needed, and he assured the council there wouldn’t be much, if any, change in response time.

“We’re not requesting (automatic aid) and we don’t need it,” Owens told the council. “I’ll call you when I need you.”

Rudy said the dispatcher knows when it’s a real fire and most of the fire professionals also have a good sense of when it’s a real fire needing an additional response.

“I think Jim is happy to have a mutual aid agreement with Augusta, and when he feels the need to bring them in, he will,” Rudy said. “It’s why he wants to change the call card to save Augusta the trouble of dispatching four vehicles to a fire call that hasn’t been substantiated.”

CHARGING FOR HELP

Owens said he’s never heard of a larger city charging a smaller town for automatic mutual aid, and he wondered why Hallowell ever would agree to pay for something it’s been receiving at no cost for years.

A spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association said the organization doesn’t track automatic and mutual aid agreements and couldn’t say for sure if there are any other deals in Maine like the one Augusta proposed.

Duane Bickford, the chief of the Fairfield Fire Department and president of the Maine Fire Chiefs’ Association, said he isn’t aware of any of those types of agreements. He declined to comment specifically on the Augusta-Hallowell situation.

In Bangor, the Fire Department doesn’t have any signed automatic aid agreements with its neighboring towns, but Chief Thomas Higgins said there’s a good working relationship between departments, and he trusts his department will be called when they’re needed.

“We normally will provide as much help as we can,” he said. “There’s a little give-and-take because we can typically provide more than what another town can provide us.”

Higgins said firefighters just want to fight fires and aren’t concerned where a fire is located. It’s a proud profession, he said, and he expects Hallowell and Augusta will come to an agreement.

Bridgeo said Hallowell officials agreed to pay $150,000 annually for full coverage had it chosen to contract fire services with Augusta. The $100,000 he proposed to continue automatic mutual aid is not final, and Mayor David Rollins and the council conveyed their wish to discuss the final amount if Hallowell chooses to purse that type of arrangement.

If Hallowell chooses to forgo the automatic aid agreement, Bridgeo said he’d be fine with that decision and so would the mayor, the Augusta council and the Fire Department. He also said he has longtime friends who live in Hallowell and he wouldn’t do anything insensitive to the public safety of Hallowell residents.

“We respect Hallowell’s decision either way, and I’ll continue to say that,” he said. “There’s no hard feelings. Just let us know.”

NEXT STEPS

Rudy and Bridgeo both expect to have a conversation as soon as this week about the proposal and the next steps in the process. The July 1 date Bridgeo mentioned in his May 8 letter is less than two months away, so both sides would like a decision sooner rather than later.

Bridgeo wants people to have a better understanding of Augusta’s position, and he said he’d do all he can to help with that. Rudy wants to continue having a discussion at the staff level with Augusta and “focus on the nuts and bolts of what an agreement would look like” while getting a strong sense of what the cost and benefit to Hallowell would be.

Councilors Walker and Lisa Harvey-McPherson would like to hold a town hall-style discussion about fire services in hopes of alleviating public concern and addressing the misconceptions and misinformation that they say has been problematic throughout the process.

Walker said some citizens have indicated they don’t fully understand the details of mutual aid with other communities, which she said is leading to a lot of uncertainty about firefighters’ response to incidents at their homes and businesses.

“I think it’s appropriate to discuss the matter publicly to educate Hallowell citizens and alleviate their concerns, and to ensure our cities’ first responders have the resources for an efficient, fair and safe response,” Walker said.

Rudy said he agrees and wants the discussion to get past a lot of the public comment and rhetoric and focus on facts and data.

“I’m hoping we’ll be able to get down to what is fact and what is real in order to make an intelligent decision based on the cost-benefit analysis of the proposal Augusta has offered,” Rudy said.

Meantime, Rudy will continue working on the upcoming municipal budget and will be working with Owens and others on final design plans for the fire station to be built at Stevens Commons. He said it’s frustrating not to be talking about the anonymous donor pledging up to $1 million to construct the station.

“We could be focusing on that and on enhancing regional fire response for all our partner communities in central Maine,” he said. “Instead of having those kinds of positive conversations, here we are.”

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundi

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