CHINA — The chiefs of China’s three volunteer fire departments are not pleased with the town’s select board.

After the governing body recommended a $10,000 decrease in their stipend allotment for the coming year, chiefs William Van Wickler, Richard Morse and Tim Theriault voiced strong disapproval for the move in a letter published in the municipally funded newspaper The Town Line on March 13. Van Wickler is the chief of Weeks Mills Volunteer Fire Department, Morse is chief of the South China Volunteer Fire Department and Theriault — who is also a state representative — is chief of the China Village Volunteer Fire Department.

To Van Wickler, Morse and Theriault, the proposed stipend cuts represent “an effort to control and dictate the fire departments how to do business.” But members of the select board claimed the decision was intended to counteract misuses of the compensation system.

Selectman Ron Breton said the select board will likely discuss the letter at its Monday evening meeting and issue a “rebuttal” in the coming days.

“I’m very disappointed in that letter,” he said. “There are a lot of mistruths. … I don’t know where they’re coming from. I don’t.”

At China’s 2017 Town Meeting, residents voted to pay fire and rescue officials for their service for the first time. A memorandum of understanding between the select board and the volunteer fire departments established flat rates for the chiefs and ranking officers as well as a sum to be distributed to members of the departments based on participation.

A total of $40,000 was allocated for stipends in 2017-2018, and $30,000 was approved the following year. This year, the select board recommended $22,700, with a flat rate for all firefighters and officers and no more per-call allotment. This went against the fire departments’ request of $33,000 for stipends, which was backed by the budget committee. There are two members of the budget committee who are volunteer firefighters, according to the 2019 town report.

The chiefs’ letter claimed that the select board did not consult the firefighters before making the recommendation.

“There was no discussion held or notice given to any of the fire departments,” it reads. “The only way we became aware of the matter was an after the fact email from the town manager, stating the select board approved an alternate to the stipends and the details of how it will work.”

Breton said that the board proposed a decrease because officers had been “double-dipping.”

“Chiefs get that $1,000 a year and then are taking money for the call that they went to, and that’s not the intention of that stipend,” Breton said.

Breton said that flat rates for everyone would also make it easier to plan budgets and track spending.

“Having set numbers for each person allows us to manage the town’s money better,” he noted.

Though the chiefs initially opposed the proposal for stipends in 2017, “on the grounds that we had not been consulted and that the proposal had not been fully thought through,” according to the March 13 letter, they now think it has “met its intended goal of increased recruitment, retention and participation.”

Morse said that since the stipends were introduced in 2017, three firefighters have joined the South China department. Van Wickler said two new members joined Weeks Mills department in the last calendar year. Theriault was in session at the Legislature on Thursday and could not be reached for comment before press time.

I’m not going to hang my hat on specific figures, I just believe we have better participation,” Van Wickler told the Morning Sentinel.

“The recruiting problem is kind of endemic,” Morse added. “It’s with us all the time — we’re always looking for new members. … I’m not going to say that the stipends are required but … we do feel it’s helped us with recruitment and retention — and participation of the members. They’re much more willing to go and stay longer if there’s a stipend involved.”

In their letter to the town, the chiefs drew a connection between the proposed reduction of their pay and a proposed increase in compensation for the select board. This year, the five selectmen were paid $200 each, and under the proposal for 2019-2020, they would be paid $1,000 each.

“This recommendation to cut the stipend of firefighters was proposed, ironically, as the select board has proposed to increase their own stipend,” the letter states.

Breton disagreed.

“When they came out with that one, that really insulted me,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a valid point. I think the two are separate. Probably the timing was bad. I think that’s just a point they’re putting out there to make the select board look bad. The select board hasn’t had an increase in many, many, many years as far as what they’re doing. I’ll tell you, I went out and asked the town manager to get me some numbers as to what each community (pays its) select board. That $800 increase is below the average of the 16 towns that we looked at.”

 

OTHER CONCERNS

The chiefs also raised concerns over the select board knowing all the financial details about their departments, which are nonprofit organizations that the town pays for emergency services.

The departments’ town-issued operating budgets cover utility costs in the buildings, fuel, vehicle repairs, training and various expenses associated with responding to emergencies. Morse said the departments mostly save up donated money to buy firetrucks. South China built its fire house using donated money and volunteer labor, he said. The departments provide quarterly financial reports on the spending of town funds.

The letter described a feeling that the elected officials had inquired about each department’s fundraising dollars “so that they can reduce VFD operations budget allocations accordingly.”

“The fact that they’re trying to get us to fund the town’s requirement for fire protection through fundraising is a pretty big issue,” Morse said.

Van Wickler agreed.

I don’t think that the money that’s donated to the departments in good faith is supposed to be for the town to reduce its tax burden,” Van Wickler said. “I think it’s to help the fire departments go above and beyond their operating budget.”

Breton said Morse’s and Van Wickler’s perception was a misrepresentation of the select board’s intentions.

“We asked them (about their funding) because state statute asks and requires that we do that because we are appropriating taxpayer money to support them,” he said. “The select board’s responsibility is to help support them when they need the money. That’s the whole thing — when they need the money. We need to try to determine what they have and how much we should be giving them. We require that info from all the other nonprofits that we support, and they gladly give it to us in most cases.”

Selectwoman Irene Belanger said she trusts that the departments put their town-allocated funding to good causes.

“I know of no time when any of the fire and rescue departments ever abused the use of their monies,” she said, adding that she also supports the way they use the money they raise on their own. “That’s their money, and if it gives them the funds to do something, that’s a good thing.”

Elsewhere in the letter, the chiefs made claims that the selectmen intended to consolidate their departments into one centralized fire station, which they said would be “fixing something that is, in our opinion, not broken.”

The memo escalated into questioning the boards’ faith in their leadership: “Do they have problems with the way we prevent, manage and control emergencies in this town? Do they think we are not doing our jobs? Do they question our motives? Do they think they can run the VFDs better than the current Chiefs?”

The other members of China’s select board, Jeff LaVerdiere, Donna Mills-Stevens and chairman Robert MacFarland did not respond to calls seeking comments.

 

COMMUNICATION

Underpinning all of the chiefs’ concerns was a feeling of being excluded from the select board’s decision-making processes or overridden entirely.

“I think collectively all three departments feel that if the lines of communications were open — we can’t answer questions that weren’t asked,” Van Wickler said. “This all stemmed from a lack of communication, and if we felt that we had reasonable means to have addressed (our concerns), we wouldn’t have been forced to provide this letter to the town. We don’t want to wind up where some other towns have wound up.”

Breton stated that the chiefs’ claims of being excluded from the process are unfounded.

“They’re complaining that the board doesn’t communicate with them — they don’t show up because they don’t want us to know what their business is,” he said. “They’ve got to be (at meetings). Because it’s not the select board’s responsibility to go to the fire department. They’re blaming everything on us.”

When asked how often he attends select board meetings, Morse replied: “We go when we’re asked to but not regularly. They meet every two weeks — I don’t have time to spend hours every week at these meetings.”

Belanger wondered if the board should reach out more directly.

“We should have had them in and sat down with them and had a talk, and maybe we will come to them after this, because I’m happy to sit and talk with them,” she said. “But I trust them with their funds, and we need them. We need those departments.”

China’s Select Board will meet 6:30 p.m. Monday in the town office.

 

Meg Robbins — 861-9239
[email protected]
Twitter: @megrobbins


Comments are not available on this story.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.