Town Councilor Mike Perkins, second from left, listens Tuesday night as the proposed budget is introduced during the annual Town Meeting at the Messalonskee High School Performing Arts Center in Oakland. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

OAKLAND — Voters at the annual Town Meeting agreed Tuesday night to spend $469,000 to turn the town’s part-time volunteer Fire Department into one that is full time, a move prompted by steady increases in fire and medical calls and a decrease in the availability of on-call firefighters.

About 100 residents turned out for the meeting at the Messalonskee High School Performing Arts Center, approving all 25 articles in about 90 minutes, and passing a proposed $6.18 million municipal budget that represents an increase from the $5.18 million budget approved last year.

With the new budget, the town’s property tax rate of $16.40 per $1,000 in assessed valuation would increase to $16.80, Town Manager Ella Bowman told voters before they considered the warrant articles.

Fire Chief David Coughlin said after the meeting he was pleased residents approved the Fire Department request.

“I feel proud to live in a community that’s willing to support the needs and the safety of our community,” he said.

The $469,000 for the Fire Department will enable Coughlin to hire four full-time firefighter/EMTs to work a rotating, 24-hour schedule, seven days a week. It will allow for a minimum of one firefighter/EMT to be at the fire station and available for calls 24 hours a day. That person would be supplemented during daytime hours by Coughlin, who has been chief for 16 years, and the current per diem staff and on-call firefighters and volunteers.

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Full-time firefighter/EMTs would work 24 hours, be off for 48 hours, on again for 24 hours and then off 96 hours, for an average of 42 hours a week. The funds will cover firefighters’ salaries and benefits, gear, uniforms and overtime pay as part of the full-time department.

Residents voted by a show of hands to approve the spending request. Before the vote, resident Pat Linehan said assertions of an increasing call volume for the Fire Department were not supported by information in the town report that showed, for instance, 1,207 calls in 2021 versus 1,256 in 2020.

Members of the Oakland Town Council on the stage Tuesday night during the annual Town Meeting at the Messalonskee High School Performing Arts Center. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Coughlin assured Linehan the call volume has been increasing steadily for years and that is supported by statistics over a 10-year period. The chief said one year might show fewer calls than the previous year because of certain circumstances. He gave as examples a dry year prompting more calls for brush fires, or a certain resident needing a lot of help one year, but then moving out of town.

Resident Chuck Freise asked why four was chosen as the number of firefighter/EMTs to hire for a full-time department.

Oakland fire Chief David Coughlin at the Messalonskee High School Performing Arts Center during Tuesday night’s annual Town Meeting. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“Basically, it is what’s going to allow us to have the 24-hour coverage, which is what our goal is to have,” Coughlin said, reiterating a firefighter would work 24 hours, be off 48, work another 24 and be off 96 hours.

“That’s a common schedule,” Coughlin said. “It’s going to help us recruit.”

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Before voting began Tuesday night, Parks and Recreation Director Eric Seekins announced Coughlin was to be honored with the town’s Commitment to Excellence Award, given to a town employee by town employees. Coughlin headed up the COVID-19 task force team when the pandemic hit in 2020, is chairman of the town’s safety committee and helped the Parks and Recreation Department maneuver through the pandemic, to help ensure safe activities for children, according to Seekins.

Bowman echoed Seekins’ sentiments, saying, “I can tell you right now, his leadership has been incredible.”

At a public hearing April 12 on the Fire Department plan, Coughlin and Bowman said the call increase and firefighter shortage is not unique to Oakland. Fire departments across Maine are experiencing the same problem. Oakland’s call volume has increased nearly 100% over the past 25 years, and the Fire Department now receives about 1,200 calls a year, Coughlin said.

Town Councilor Don Borman listens Tuesday night as the proposed budget is introduced during the annual Town Meeting at the Messalonskee High School Performing Arts Center in Oakland. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Bowman said Tuesday fewer people are willing to be call firefighters.

“Who gets up at 2 o’clock in the morning when it’s 25 below zero to help someone they don’t know?” she asked voters. “It takes a special person to do that, and they’re

becoming fewer and fewer and fewer.”

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Other increases in the municipal budget are reflected in negotiated police raises, cost of materials including sand and increased insurance and fuel costs, according to Bowman.

The proposed transfer station budget reflects an increase of about $28,000, to be used for increased operating costs, new tools and a new yard truck to replace a front-end loader that has 15,000 hours on it and keeps breaking down, according to Bowman.

Voters on Tuesday also approved spending $666,330 from federal COVID-19 funds to repair the town’s aging and deteriorated sewer collection pipes, installed in the early 1900s.

Terry Borman was given the 2021 Spirit of America Award for her work at the town’s food pantry and for serving on the town’s flower committee.

Jean Ponitz was also honored for her work on the flower committee.

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