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Selectmen put two full-time firefighters before voters


PEPPERELL — The Board of Fire Engineers has received partial relief from a town-wide hiring freeze as selectmen approved placement of a $110,000 override request for two full-time firefighters on the May 5 Annual Town Meeting warrant.

Selectmen did not, however, lend their support for a $40,000 full-time secretary/administrator to replace the eight-hour per week post held by Sue Smith despite fire Chief Toby Tyler’s 70-hour work week and paperwork backlog.

The Finance Committee voted a week prior not to recommend adding any full-timers to the Fire Department. FinCom Chairman Diane Gaspar sat with town accountant Theresa Walsh in the audience.

Selectmen were torn in reaching a decision because the warrant already contains a $1 million override question. Historically, a “menu” override — two or more override requests considered separately — often results in all overrides failing. Any override approved by town meeting is contingent upon a ballot vote held later.

Even if the larger override passes, thereby becoming a permanent part of the municipal budget, Pepperell faces a $632,000 deficit going into 2010.

The $1 million override would replenish a gutted Stabilization Fund that must be robbed to pay Pepperell’s share of regional school costs that totals about $1.1 million above the state-set minimum. It would also result in municipal layoffs, according to the financial officials.

Tyler said there is no guarantee how many firefighters will show up to an alarm because, unlike the old days when firefighters worked in town, most aren’t around during the working day. Often only a handful are available, yet state fire codes mandate that as many men must be outside a building fire as there are inside.

As a result, the chief said mutual aid is becoming the norm, coming mostly from Groton and Townsend, which both have full-time firefighters. Then too, modern training requirements are causing many would-be firefighters to decline service, Tyler said.

Selectman Joseph Sergi asked how the chiefs know the right number needed to respond to a given incident.

“We don’t,” Deputy Chief Peter Shattuck said, “so we go with as many as we think is necessary, usually one company plus EMTs. Having people on the clock would be a great service to the town.”

Last year, the fire engineers sought a Homeland Security grant that would have provided more than $600,000 to pay for full-time firefighters on a decreasing annual schedule. It was denied after 19 months of waiting. A new grant request is 80 percent through the process.

“The truth? We want more than this. We need to do something. I know what the department needs and I’ll go fight for it because we need to keep the town safe,” Shattuck said. “I know it will cost money, and for me, too, as a taxpayer.”

“This is not the year to do this,” Gaspar said, “or next year, either. It’s the school (cost). That’s the 800-pound elephant in the room.”

Gaspar asked why two full-time firefighters are being sought, not just one.

Sergi said selectmen must rely on the operational needs as presented. “Now it’s up to the voters to decide. Folks need to think long and hard,” he said.

“I agree,” Selectman Lyndon Johnson said. “Can’t we barter somewhere a part-time moving to full-time in a year a training basis for one full-time and one part-time? There’s a lot of people without jobs.”

“We know there’s a lot going to taxpayers,” Shattuck said.

“I know you guys know,” Johnson responded.

“There’s nothing else to do,” Shattuck said.