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Timing wrong, again, to add staff to Fire Department

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PEPPERELL — Another Fire Department plea to add two full-time employees has been squelched, this time by a sympathetic but budget-minded Board of Selectmen.

The timing isn’t working for the Board of Fire Engineers, selectmen noted as they unanimously rejected a second discussion of the use of Department of Homeland Security’s SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant money to hire help.

The federal money would pay $354,974 of the $571,734 cost of two Grade 5 employees in a shrinking percentage over five years as they move from Step 1 to Step 5. The town would be responsible for the remainder.

Town Meeting vetoed the idea two years ago, because of the five-year increasing cost.

Within the past two weeks, Fire Chief Toby Tyler told selectmen, the department was notified Pepperell’s grant application had been accepted. Now the town budget is struggling with a $1.9 million deficit.

“We applied last October and November but were denied,” Tyler said. “We’re accepted as of May 22 or we are in the midst of being accepted if (the town) accepts.

“I know we’re not in the best of financial shape but we want to bring this to you for a recommendation to move forward,” he said.

Chairman Joseph Sergi said a lot has happened since the grant request was sent in, noting that Town Meeting had refused the plan and “now our revenues have fallen off the cliff. I’m leery,” he said. “I’m not sure I can support this.”

Town Administrator Robert Hanson asked if he were right in assuming that should two firefighters be added using grant money and finances continue to shrink, the new employees could not be laid off.

“That’s not true but we would need to reimburse (the program) up to the point where they’re let go,” Tyler said. “We would need to get through the full five years. They’ve extended an answer a couple of days to allow me to show this to you.”

Deputy Chief Jonathan Kinney added that if the grant request were approved and Pepperell rejects it, chances are slim it would come around again.

“We aren’t in a position. The timing is really unfortunate,” Selectman Patrick McNabb said.

Fire Department staffing levels are down. A notice on the town Web site reads:

“Pepperell’s volunteer Fire Department has, for a long time, been one of the best and fastest in the region. That excellent history of service, as well as the safety of our citizens, is being now threatened by a lack of personnel able to respond to emergency calls during weekday daytime hours.

“If you work in or close to Pepperell during the day, please consider joining your neighbors and fellow townspeople as a volunteer firefighter or firefighter/EMT. No experience is necessary. Training and good camaraderie are provided.”

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