HARVARD — Three town department heads — Fire Chief Joseph Sicard, Police Chief Edward Denmark and Department of Public Works Director Rich Nota — briefed selectmen last week on their budget proposals for next year.
One proposal led to some debate when Sicard called for establishing first-ever burn permit fees.
Not now, the majority of the board said. But they agreed to revisit the issue next year.
Fire Dept. overview
Sicard said that as he started building a budget in his first year on the job, the hardest part was locating records at the fire station. Basically, his new budget request of $200,575 looks about the same as last year’s, he said.
The exception is the expense line, which includes replacing equipment this year.
By law, firefighting gear must be tested and certified annually, Sicard explained. The checklist includes everything that wears, tears and deteriorates, from hoses and other firetruck apparatus to air packs and clothing firefighters wear on the job. There are also replacement timetables for each item.
Previously, $7,000 was set aside for testing, certification and records-keeping. But because some certifications lapsed, he estimates it will cost $18,000 this year to catch up. “It’s a huge liability and we need to keep records,” he said, adding that some items on the annual roster haven’t been tested for six years.
Some of the upkeep sweep is still in progress, such as radio equipment infrastructure evaluation, the outcome of which may up the bottom line, Sicard said.
The Fire Deptartment needs five new sets of turnout gear this year. Based on a four-year life cycle, Sicard suggested incremental replacement from now on, adding an extra $1,400 or so each year to replace worn-out boots and gloves.
Because records-keeping is key, Sicard also asked to increase administrative assistant hours to 16 per-week. The current four hours is “not remotely enough,” he said.
In the context of five-year strategic plans all departments were asked to frame for the future, Sicard proposed setting up a revolving account for hazardous materials responses, funded by inspection fees.
When the Fire Department responds to a hazmat incident at a local business, they bill the company’s insurance, Sicard said. But the “big expense” is materials disposal, which must be paid up front. The account would be used only for that purpose, Sicard said.
Selectman and retired Fire Chief Peter Warren indicated it wasn’t a far-fetched idea and he raised no objection to it. “We had one in the past,” he said.
Burn Permits off the table
Warren was not so sanguine about another item on the new fire chief’s fee schedule that would be a first: $25 for a brush-burning permit. “I got several calls about it,” he said.
Revenue from annual fees charged for burn permits — which are free now — would help cover the cost of fighting brush fires caused by out of control permit burns, Town Administrator Tim Bragan said.
He said the tie-in made sense and that such responses are “over and above” the cost of firefighting in general, which is the town’s responsibility.
When a backyard brush burn gets out of hand, it’s “by design” rather than by accident when safety rules are ignored, he said. Those rules are spelled out on the burn permit, such as keeping an eye on the fire and having an extinguisher or water supply at hand.
Warren said he’d support the burn permit fee if the money went to the SAFE program. Grant-funded in the past, the educational fire-prevention program has a successful track record and in his view the town should commit to keeping it alive.
Besides adding first-ever burn permit fees, Sicard proposed upping bonfire permit fees. Limited to one per year for each organization, they would be charged “the going rate” of $32 per hour — for a firefighting detail, he said. It would bring in $8,000 per year.
Sicard estimated burn permit fees would bring in $15,000 a year based on the number of permits previously issued.
But Selectman Ron Ricci said it’s shortsighted to charge fees this year, when residents are cleaning up their yards from the Halloween snowstorm and may burn more brush on site this year. The season starts in January.
Ricci also questioned the wisdom of charging $250 annually to maintain firebox alarms on private buildings. In effect, the fee would only apply to the churches, since the only other box locations are on town-owned buildings, which would be exempt.
Selectman Bill Johnson and Bragan favored the idea, arguing that private entities should help cover the maintenance cost of the fireboxes rather than pass it on to taxpayers. Besides, a private firm would charge more than $250 a year for the service, Bragan said.
Warren sided with Ricci. It benefits the town to have those boxes installed and ensure they work. “I think it’s penny wise and pound foolish,” Warren said of the fee proposal.
Selectmen scratched the fee idea but agreed that if a box needs replacement, the owner should pay for it. The cost of a new firebox is about $2,000, Sicard said.