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Vergennes, Ferrisburgh at odds over fire contract

“We have to be careful here, because there is a human component besides these five people who are deciding not to pay our bills. I don’t morally feel good about telling the town officials we’re not going to help them with fires.”
— City Councilor Jill Murray-Killon

FERRISBURGH — A simmering disagreement over how much Ferrisburgh should pay Vergennes for its fire department to be the first responder for much of its town has erupted into a serious dispute between leaders of the two communities.

Vergennes wants to continue to base what it charges on the value of Ferrisburgh property, while Ferrisburgh officials complain that they are paying for a larger percentage of calls than come from their town.

Some officials say the argument threatens cooperation on other issues.

Ferrisburgh selectboard member Clark Hinsdale enumerated some of those important issues:

  • Talks on the communities’ borders.
  • The fact that Ferrisburgh residents pay more for Vergennes-Panton water and city sewer.
  • Regional planning, such as cooperation that could prevent undesirable big-box development in Ferrisburgh near the city.
  • The possibility that extending city sewer lines into Ferrisburgh would create a “critical mass” of ratepayers that would help the city afford its planned system upgrade.

“One of my fears is that we’re moving in entirely the wrong direction in community relations,” Hinsdale said at Tuesday’s selectboard meeting.

“The issues between Vergennes and Ferrisburgh are desperately begging for solutions … including issues that are in my opinion more crucial for Vergennes than Ferrisburgh, but the direction that we’re on is going to compromise the potential for services for citizens in both communities.”

Vergennes City Manager Ron Redmond on Jan. 11 urged the city council to sit down with Ferrisburgh officials and hear out their concerns.

The nub of the current dispute is that since July the Ferrisburgh selectboard has refused to pay a $92,767 bill for Vergennes Fire Department coverage. The city department is the first responder for Ferrisburgh west of Otter Creek, plus a large portion of the southern end of the town.

Both town and city officials agree that Vergennes officials calculated that bill using a formula that is more than 40 years old and also applies to Panton and Waltham, towns for which the city department is the sole provider of fire protection. Vergennes Councilor Mel Hawley said officials from all four communities agreed on that policy when it was created.

Every year, city officials have calculated the assessed value of the property in each of the communities and then billed out each — including Vergennes — for fire coverage based on the value of the real estate its departments protect as a first responder.

For the current fiscal year, that meant Ferrisburgh in July received a $92,967 bill for real estate valued at 48% of the town’s grand list. That bill was about $5,000 more than city officials had in January told the town to expect and that Ferrisburgh voters had then approved in June.

Ferrisburgh’s share has grown from $54,528 in 2017 to the most recent request for an amount that equals about 41% of the city’s current $224,227 fire department budget. The city has purchased a fire truck and other equipment since 2017.

Selectboard members also note the city department typically answers roughly twice as many calls in Vergennes as in Ferrisburgh, according to Vergennes Fire Department data.

Ferrisburgh board members, including Chair Jessica James, met with Redmond and Vergennes Fire Chief Jim Breur several times to go over their concerns.

They sought more Ferrisburgh input on the budget; asked the city’s funding request be made in time to allow the town to budget accurately; discussed studying and creating a possibly more equitable funding system; and talked about whether it would be cost-effective to create a larger regional fire district.

Meanwhile, in December, the Ferrisburgh selectboard sent a partial payment of $26,907 for fire services. Board members at the time said that amount was closer to what the town should be giving the city for half a year of fire service based on the number of calls.

But on Tuesday, the selectboard revised the annual estimate for city first response up to $66,900 in the 2022-2023 budget it adopted for voter approval on Town Meeting Day.

James said the board used a system based on the ratio of parcels in Vergennes and in the city department’s coverage area in Ferrisburgh, rather than the assessed value, to arrive at the lower figure.

After an executive session to discuss the fire contract, one held after members aired grievances about the Jan. 11 city council meeting, the Ferrisburgh board also said it remained willing to talk with Vergennes.

James read a statement: “The top priority for the Ferrisburgh selectboard, and we’re all in agreement with this, is that it’s extremely important for us, and we are ready and available to meet with the Vergennes leadership to accomplish this very important goal.”

CITY REACTION

On Jan. 11, the city council wasn’t pleased with Ferrisburgh’s low partial payment.

The council did agree it could probably work with Chief Breur and Redmond to provide Ferrisburgh, Panton and Waltham firmer numbers by January to present to their town voters.

Redmond opened with a plea for cooperation. He said he had “built relationships” with Ferrisburgh officials while discussing the fire contract and other issues.

Redmond described the talks he and Breur had with members of the Ferrisburgh selectboard and fire department as friendly, but said they didn’t reach an understanding on how to give Ferrisburgh a larger say in the city fire budget or how much the town should pay.

“There are two parties that are not on the same page,” Redmond said. “They decided not to pay the bill, or (to) pay what they thought it was worth. I have returned the check, and have not heard back.”

Councilors were not receptive to compromise. Hawley recommended a hardball approach.

“Send them a new contract and change the due dates. Let’s be reasonable, give them 30 days out and 60 days out (to pay half on each date), and just make it clear if we don’t get the contract back and the payment back, you will assume they don’t want the coverage,” Hawley said. “I wouldn’t dance with them too much.”

Hawley added residents had authorized the funding on Town Meeting Day.

“If you look at the budget voters approved, it approved $87,000 coming to the city of Vergennes,” he said. “So what the five selectmen are doing, I have no idea.”

Hawley noted the payment schedule was created with input from town officials.

“We’ve had a formula that’s worked for well over 40 years developed with Ferrisburgh in the room,” Hawley said. “We’re not going to charge Panton, Waltham and Vergennes one way, and Ferrisburgh another way.”

Councilors weren’t impressed with the selectboard’s negotiating tactics. Ian Huizenga called the approach “dumb,” and Hawley said if Ferrisburgh didn’t want city fire protection it could let the city know.

Hawley also noted in a later email that the current Ferrisburgh budget approved in March includes $127,758 to support the Ferrisburgh fire department, and $89,060 for the Vergennes Fire Department, including $2,000 in hourly wages for city firefighters during calls to the town.

Hawley wrote the $127,758 goes for the town department that is responsible for 52% of Ferrisburgh, as measured by grand list value, “and for VFD $89,060 to cover the other 48% and the Selectboard have concluded that the payment for VFD is unfair.”

Mayor Matt Chabot backed Hawley.

“We have an agreement that has existed for 40 years,” Chabot said. “I think we need to push this back to the Ferrisburgh selectboard.”

Councilor Jill Murray-Killon advised restraint in withholding fire service.

“We have to be careful here, because there is a human component besides these five people who are deciding not to pay our bills,” Murray-Killon said. “I don’t morally feel good about telling the town officials we’re not going to help them with fires.”

Despite the criticism of the negotiating tactics, councilors left the door open for discussion, at least assuming payment first.

Huizenga said he could see representatives from both sides taking a new look on how the communities share expenses.

“There needs to be a conversation,” he said.

SELECTBOARD REACTS

Likewise, Ferrisburgh selectboard members on Tuesday were unimpressed after seeing video of the council meeting from the week before.

Board member Jim Benoit said the city is paying for only about 30% of its own fire department, and was critical of the tone of the council meeting.

“There was some very disappointing comments,” Benoit said.

Board Member Red Muir took exception to Hawley’s point about the Town Meeting Day budget number, saying the board isn’t obligated to spend up to a line item. “It’s a budget number,” Muir said. “It’s an estimate.”

Muir said the town isn’t failing to live up to a written obligation.

“At the time of the budget, there was no contract for fire service with Vergennes,” he said. “We are trying to negotiate a service to the town.

“I look forward to meeting and coming up with something that works for both parties,” Muir concluded.

Board member Chris Campbell took issue with Hawley’s email, and said Vergennes was looking to get into what it saw as the “deep pockets” of Ferrisburgh.

“Town value-wise is meaningless,” he said. “We’re talking about people.”

MOVING FORWARD

Some were calmer.

Hinsdale recommended a joint committee moderated by the Addison County Regional Planning Commission.

“We need to engage Vergennes in a strategic conversation about this whole range of issues,” he said.

Ferrisburgh Town Clerk and Vergennes resident Pam Cousino wrote an email to both the council and selectboard, speaking as citizen.

“While I may not agree with the approach that Ferrisburgh has taken with this process, the main intent over these past 4 months has been to get everyone at the table to see if perhaps there might be a better way, through collaborative negotiation, to review the current process,” she wrote.

“I humbly and respectfully ask both boards to meet together, perhaps as a smaller group, to review the funding mechanism and see if it can be improved upon.”

Panton Selectboard Chair Howard Hall also weighed in.

Hall said the $46,000 for Vergennes fire coverage of Panton in the current fiscal year is “expensive insurance” for the number of calls Panton typically sees from the city.

But Hall, for 40 years a firefighter and paramedic in Illinois before retiring to Vermont, said basically he believes his town has no issue with the arrangement.

In the long run, Hall favors greater regional cooperation, such as the fire district that Ferrisburgh and Vergennes officials have discussed.

“I think it would be really prudent,” Hall said. “We would love to participate in something like that to hear what would benefit all of us together.”

Some, including Hawley, suggest all four towns must be involved in a solution. James said that might not necessarily be true for Vergennes and Ferrisburgh to evaluate its formula.

“If it’s a system that involved all four towns, and one town isn’t happy with it, then is it the best system for all four?” she said.

James said the next move is for her to reach out to Vergennes officials and say, “Let’s talk.” She plans to attend the council’s Tuesday meeting.

“It’s opening it up for discussion to see if there is a better way for everybody to be paying for this,” she said. “If no one has touched this in 40 years, maybe that’s a reason why we should be looking into it.”

Chabot said he’ll add James to Tuesday’s agenda, and hopes a solution can be reached in the fire dispute so that both communities can move on to larger concerns.

“We would welcome Jess to our meeting,” he said.

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