City eyes emergency fire preparedness spending
VERGENNES — The Vergennes City Council and the chairperson of the Ferrisburgh selectboard at a recent meeting wrestled with how to pay for $150,000 of badly needed new air packs for the Vergennes Fire Department.
Air packs are the breathing gear firefighters wear when they go into burning structures or deal with other dangerous situations.
Vergennes Fire Chief Jim Breur told the council at its Nov. 10 meeting he has 20 firefighters trained for interior work and they need that many air packs. The packs date back to 2002 and have been rebuilt several times.
“They’re at end of life,” Breur told the council at the meeting.
Complicating the need is that replacement canisters for the air packs cost $1,000 each, and are not compatible with new equipment, Breur said. And his department could really use 40 canisters as soon as is reasonable.
No council member disagreed.
“We have a requirement to keep the firefighters absolutely safe,” said Deputy Mayor Mel Hawley.
Breur recommended to councilors a plan, initially proposed by City Manager Daniel Hofman, to spend $50,000 of a surplus from the department’s 2019-2020 fiscal year, while borrowing the remaining $100,000 from the city’s Water Tower Fund. That fund is fed by cellphone companies that pay to put broadcast equipment on the former city water tower property.
Breur said the department could pay back the fund in five-year increments of $20,000 each, saving interest costs for the city and the other towns the department serves as a first responder — Panton, Waltham and large parts of Ferrisburgh.
Breur also proposed starting a $30,000 capital improvement fund to make future equipment purchases easier. Added to the proposed $20,000 loan payment it could mean a $50,000 increase to the current budget of roughly $224,000.
It is important for the council to make such major budgetary decisions soon because the other towns the city fire department serves need to incorporate spending increases into their 2021-2022 budgets.
The four communities fund the city department based on the value of the grand list protected in each town. According to the city’s latest figures, the breakdown is: Vergennes, 36%; Ferrisburgh, 38%; Panton, 17%; and Waltham, 9%.
Those spending plans must be finalized by January to allow the towns to publish completed budgets in time for Town Meeting Day.
But councilors did not agree on Tuesday how to pay for the air packs.
Hawley said he was reluctant to tap the Water Tower Fund, and he suggested either bonding or waiting until June and hoping for another surplus. Then, he said, half of the packs could be bought late in June and the other half days later in July, when the city’s new fiscal year begins and the new surplus could be used. He also disagreed with the $30,000 capital fund line item.
“What is not critical is putting $30,000 in the bank,” Hawley said.
Councilor Ian Huizenga said the council lacked enough overall financial information from all departments to make a decision.
“I think we need the budgets,” Huizenga said.
Ferrisburgh selectboard chairperson Jessica James, meanwhile, told the council her town wanted the decision by the end of the year and also wanted to have more input into the budgeting process and to see more long-term planning for the fire department.
James asked city officials “to really look at a strategic plan for the fire department, a five-year plan, really looking at the tax impacts of the replacement schedule, the cost of the current equipment, the long-term operating costs, the future growth in the community planning, and how our aging population will impact the emergency service budgets going forward.”
James asked for “clarification and possibly a plan in place before we can talk about capital improvement funds and $30,000 set aside without looking at the whole picture.”
Vergennes mayor Lynn Donnelly summed up the discussion: “I think we need another meeting.”
In other business, the council on Nov. 10:
• Debated whether the police department should have its own website without direct oversight. Several councilors objected to the idea and said it should be under the manager’s purview, while Hawley said the city lacked a policy on such websites. The issue will be on the next agenda, and Donnelly said Interim City Manager Renny Perry will review the question in the meantime.
• Appointed Mabrouka Mbarek to the Vergennes Development Review Board.
• Heard from Donnelly that there was a parking problem at the new MacIntosh Park bike trails. Donnelly asked those using the park not to park on the road because it was a hazard, and warned tickets would be issued.
• Heard the meeting conclude with Donnelly thanking Hofman for his service to Vergennes. Donnelly praised Hofman’s work. His last day was Nov. 13.
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