Between a looming grant deadline and a proposed city spending plan that might increase taxes, Gardiner officials have opted to delay a decision to add staff members to the city Fire Department.

Instead, the city councilors voted to create a committee to look the department’s staffing and to bring a recommendation back to city officials at the end of the process.

Earlier this month, elected officials voted to create an ad hoc committee, made up of a city councilor, Gardiner Fire Chief Al Nelson, the fire chief of a neighboring town, two at-large members and a representative from the firefighters’ union. At the same time, they opted not to pursue a federal grant this year that would help pay for additional firefighters.

The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grants, available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are designed to help communities maintain or expand staffing by providing direct funding to pay most of the cost of staffing in the first two years, and less in the third year of the grant. The community share is smaller in the first two years and larger in the third year. While the grant could be sought again, receiving it isn’t not guaranteed.

An ambulance from the Gardiner Fire Department responds to a call Feb. 7 at the station in Gardiner. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Nelson had proposed seeking the grant to help the city overcome times when Gardiner’s Fire Department is unoccupied because the firefighters are out on ambulance calls.  When that happens, the communities with which Gardiner has automatic or mutual aid agreements respond, but not as quickly because of the distance they have to travel.

At the March 6 City Council meeting, City Manager Christine Landes said the preliminary budget could add 60 cents to the property tax rate, bringing it to $22 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation.

“The price tag in the budget is not what I would look for in the coming year,” Landes said. “There is a consideration in the budget to have $300,000 come from fund balance. We’re not necessarily going to have that opportunity next year, because the fund balance doesn’t build up that fast.”

The other reason, she said, is that the grant deadline was approaching at the end of March, and if elected officials decided later in the annual budget process that they could not afford the city’s match for the grant, and withdrew, it would have been a lot of work for Nelson to complete.

At-large Councilor Tim Cusick brought his concerns about fire staffing to the City Council after a fire eariler this year burned 192 Water St., which housed Domino’s Pizza and offices.

Before voting to approve the committee’s formation, Cusick said the problem isn’t going to go away.

“I understand that we’re up against it with the budget coming, which is very important to all of us,” he said. “The committee is a good idea to get things going. Somewhere down the road, we’ll have to address it. It’s in the limelight now. We’ll have to keep it in the limelight.”

 

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

 

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