HALLOWELL — The city Fire Department’s budget is projected to increase again this year — up almost 10 percent and nearly double what it was four years ago.

But city officials and business owners say they think that is just the cost of doing the job right.

Hallowell’s Engine 1, seen on Tuesday at the Hallowell fire station. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

The city’s draft budget for fiscal year 2020 shows a preliminary 11.4 percent increase in expenditures and a 17.6 percent drop in revenue. A large portion of those expenditures comes from capital improvements, including $80,000 for the first year of a $500,000 lease-to-own agreement allowing the Fire Department to buy two new trucks — a pumper truck and a quint truck, the latter serving as both an engine and a ladder truck.

And the Fire Department’s budget is poised to grow, with Fire Chief Jim Owens requesting $83,445, a $7,225 — or 9.48 percent — increase from the current budget spending of $76,220. Spending for the department has increased drastically since 2016, when it was $42,103.72. That’s a jump of $41,341 — or 98.19 percent — to the proposed amount for the next budget.

Owens said the increase stems from being “drastically underfunded” before he took over in 2017. Former Fire Chief Mike Grant, who served before Owens, said Owens has a different objective with the department than he did as volunteer chief, so the increasing budget makes sense.

The largest change in the department’s budget over the past four years is in the chief’s salary, which has tripled. In 2016, the volunteer chief made $6,000. Now Owens makes $20 an hour for 18 hours a week, 52 weeks per year, for a total of $18,720. His salary would not change this year.

The equipment budget is proposed to rise from $3,500 to $5,000, maintenance costs would increase from $10,750 to $11,500, and training costs would increase from $5,400 to $6,400. Owens attributed the increases to having 19 volunteers on the department to outfit and train.

Call numbers have increased, too, though the number of fires in Hallowell is low. According to a Kennebec Journal review of all calls from 2014 to 2018, crews responded to 155 calls in 2018, 121 in 2017, 116 in 2016, 77 in 2015 and 94 in 2014. The bulk of the calls are about fire alarms and car accidents. City crews have responded to 10 structure fires in Hallowell during the five-year period, while providing mutual aid 26 times and station coverage for other departments 23 times in that span. Owens said the average response time in Hallowell is five to eight minutes, which he said was good for a volunteer department, while about two minutes is good for a professional department.

An interior view of Hallowell’s fire station, taken on Tuesday. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

Using calls as a metric to judge the department’s need for funding is risky, especially in Hallowell, Owens said, because the concentration of buildings in the city’s downtown could lead to catastrophe if left to an undertrained department.

“You can’t based your preparedness on stats,” he said. “There’s a lot of risk for disastrous fire in Hallowell, (and) I have to use my 45 years of experience to protect the city.”

Downtown business owners said the growing budget isn’t large enough to merit concern, especially when it helps ensure the safety of their buildings. John Merrill, owner of Merrill’s Bookshop at 110 Water St., said he didn’t think the increase was out-of-hand, adding that he was surprised it could run on its allotted funding in 2016.

“My initial reaction is $83,000 isn’t much,” he said. “It doesn’t jump out at me as … being excessive.”

The department currently has four vehicles at the station: Two engines — one from 2003 and one from 1987 — a 1996 squad truck and a brush truck, the latter owned by the Maine Forestry Service. Owens said the state’s brush trucks move around on a yearly basis and the 20-year-old quint would take its place in the station. Owens said city’s 1987 engine would be replaced by the pumper in the fleet, while the quint would be added if included in the city’s budget.

Hallowell’s Engine 1 is a 1987 Ford 8000 built by E-One and is so old it didn’t come with shoulder belts for the the three firefighters that can ride in front seat. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

He said some additional money was worked into the budget for maintenance of the 1987 engine, in case the proposal for the lease-to-own agreement is cut from the budget.

Patti Burnett, owner of Dom’s Barber Shop at 156 Water St., said prices for everything were increasing and that was likely no different for the Fire Department equipment.

“That doesn’t bother me at all,” she said. “Our groceries have gone up so fast. … Equipment always goes up. They all have to through their training.”

When asked about the capital expenditures in the draft budget, Burnett favored securing the loader and the police cruiser because it helped two departments rather than only one; but she said she would support the budget if the truck lease were the only proposed large capital expenditure.

“I try to put my finger on it and can’t,” Owens said. “All the categories are up; we seem to be running a bit more mutual aid than before.”

Grant did question the department’s need for a ladder truck, given that departments in Gardiner and Augusta have them close by.

“I never felt the need for a ladder truck because they’re 1 to 2 miles away,” he said. “You need to have a pretty sharp crew to operate that equipment.”

Owens argued that having a ladder truck in the city could help fight downtown fires that could spread quickly in the time it takes for other departments to respond. He added that ladder trucks from other towns are also too big to navigate Hallowell’s cramped downtown alleys.

Another increase is a never-before-budgeted $3,600 vehicle stipend for Owens’ personal truck, which he drives when responding to calls. He said it was a fairness issue, because other department heads have access to vehicles for their jobs.

“I probably go to about 120 calls (a year),” he said. “I thought it was fair.”

Grant said he ran the budget on a shoestring because his “mandate” for the position was different from the mandate Owens has been given.

“In 1983, I considered that (my) mandate to improve the fire protection in the city,” he said. “The people of Hallowell were getting the best fire protection available for the money they were (paying).

“I fulfilled my mandate and Jim’s mandate is to improve the professionalism of the department,” Grant added, “and that comes with a cost.”

An exterior view of Hallowell’s fire station on Tuesday. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

Owens disagreed with Grant’s assessment of a specific mandate, but said he was urged by city officials to increase manpower. He said the department had 12 volunteers when he took over and now has 19. In 2017, the department’s training budget was $428.60, which Owens said allowed a couple of single training sessions for two volunteers. With his new budget, Owens said, he can now afford to send volunteers to multiple training sessions each year.

In addition to the increased budget, the Hallowell Fire Department also moved into a new home — a slightly less than $2 million fire station — in June 2018. The two-level building, funded by an anonymous donor, houses a community/training space, a kitchen and an office for the fire chief on its upper level closest to Winthrop Street; its lower level houses the bays for the department’s firetrucks and fireboat, along with gear storage for the volunteer firefighters and washing facilities.


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