NORRIDGEWOCK — Residents Monday night gave town officials the go ahead to apply for a federal grant that would help fund two new positions for full-time firefighters — the town’s first — for three years.

The application for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency is due March 22.

The Board of Selectmen will decide Wednesday if they want to apply for the grant — a likely yes after a majority of residents showed support in an unofficial vote Monday night.

“The way volunteer fire departments are staffed today is based on a model that’s 100 years old,” said firefighter Aaron Gordon, who presented on the grant application to a group of about 40 people at Monday’s annual Town Meeting at Mill Stream Elementary School. “It’s based on people volunteering more. It’s based on employers letting people leave to go to calls. We’re socially facing a different time period that is having an effect on our services.”

Gordon urged the board and residents Monday night to support the grant application, which could cover a portion of the cost of two entry-level firefighter positions for three years.

In the first two years, the grant would cover 75 percent of the cost of the two positions, estimated at $100,000. In the third year, it would cover 65 percent.

“Why is this happening?” Gordon said. “The fire service as a whole, not just in Norridgewock but across the nation as a whole, is changing. We are seeing a dramatic decrease in volunteering. People don’t have the time, the energy, and they don’t want to do it for free.”

Younger generations are making less money, comparatively, to older generations and are burdened with student debt that often requires them to work multiple jobs, Gordon said. In addition, more employers are not wanting to allow their employees the time away from work during the day to respond to calls.

Training requirements are increasing and the current staff of the fire department is aging, Gordon said.

Chief Dave Jones, who has 47 years of service with the department, is hoping to retire soon, Gordon said.

“People have become accustomed to the fire department just being there,” he said. “What we’re looking at is Dave would like to retire at some point. We have five firefighters with 30 years of service or more, and the concern is we don’t have the help to replace them. We just don’t have the staff to respond during the day. So, that’s another issue we’re facing.”

In a show of hands Monday night, a majority of residents said they were in favor of applying for the grant to fund two new firefighters. Only one person raised their hand to say they were against applying.

Resident Daren Turner, who voted in favor of applying for the grant, said he did have a concern about $15 per hour being enough of a wage to attract and retain good employees.

“I’m concerned $15 an hour might not be enough to attract a fire chief or a quality person,” he said. “If we put someone through all that training after $15 an hour, they’re going to jump ship and go to another town that will double their salary.”

Gordon, who also works as a full-time firefighter in Farmington, said the grant is specifically just for entry-level positions and the salary is on par with surrounding towns. Farmington pays around $14 an hour for entry-level firefighters, he said.

Currently, firefighters are paid for training and per call, but there are no full-time employees. The total budget approved for the department Monday night was $105,272.

If the grant is secured, it would be applied to the 2020 budget, at which point Town Manager Richard LaBelle said residents could expect the budget for the department to be at least $126,000.

“It is an investment, which is why the select board, the department and the administration wanted to come to you and get your feedback,” LaBelle said.

In other news Monday, residents approved an $890,761 total budget, which represents a decrease of 18.23 percent from the current budget.

A major reason for the decrease is the town is not tackling any major road reconstruction projects this year. In years past, the town has typically raised $250,000 annually in taxes and used another $250,000 in host benefit fees from Waste Management for its Crossroads Landfill to fund road reconstruction.

This year, the $250,000 from the host benefit fee will go to reserves.

Residents also approved $325,000 in funding for improvements to the town’s wastewater treatment facilities and sewer system, comprised of a $243,750 bond and an $81,250 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service.

The money will be added to $5 million already secured from the USDA for the project.

The current selectmen were re-elected for one-year terms. Board chair Ron Frederick received 127 votes; James Lyman, 125 votes; Matthew Everett, 121 votes; Josh Chartrand, 105 votes; and Sara Wilder, 102 votes. A sixth candidate, Charlotte Curtis, received 78 votes.

For the board of tax assessors, the following candidates were elected to one-year terms: Lyman, 112 votes; Frederick, 110 votes; Wilder, 101 votes. Curtis received 66 votes.

In other elections, Katherine Wilder was elected to a three-year term on the SAD 54 board of directors, Robert Hopkins was elected to a three-year term on the planning board, and Joshua Chartrand and Bruce Obert were elected to three-year terms as sewer commissioners.

Elected library trustees were Sara Wilder for a three-year term, Marla Bottesch for a two-year term and Margaret O’Connell for a five-year term. Kay Laney was elected to a three-year term on the budget committee.

 

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368
[email protected] 
Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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