Wareham Fire District annual meeting continued after budget questioned

Apr 10, 2018

Faced with big increases and few answers, voters demanded financial transparency from Wareham Fire District officials at Monday’s annual meeting and postponed a decision on the district’s budgets until April 30.

Officials sought approval for a combined budget of $12.3 million for Wareham’s fire and water departments – a 16 percent increase from last year. The district, which provides water and fire service, is governed independently from the town. The Onset Fire District, a separate entity, provides those same services for Onset residents and is also self-governed.

Usually a brief affair with little debate and several dozen registered voters, the annual meeting lasted three and half hours and had more than 115 people in attendance. Voters questioned officials on several fronts and hope to have a clearer picture of the district's budget in three weeks.

“There’s an intellectual void here,” voter Jeffrey Fournier told officials. “You’re not equipped tonight to tell us the answers. I want to give you the opportunity to give us the answers.”

He spoke after officials struggled to explain hefty salary increases for the fire department’s three highest paid members: the chief, 1st assistant chief and 2nd assistant chief. The budget calls for increasing the chief’s salary from $125,703 to $136,250, the 1st assistant's salary from $87,003 to $104,585 and the 2nd assistant’s salary from $86,432 to $97,405.

Prudential Committee Chair George Barrett said those numbers show a change in how the budget is crafted. Now, said Barrett, the salary figures include training and education benefits that were previously represented in the "contractual benefits" line of the budget.

That explanation confused voters further, as the "contractual benefits" line had increased more than $67,000. It wasn't clear, voters said, where the budget was reduced to accommodate for the increase in the salaries. And, several people noted, that a 34 percent increase in "contractual benefits" was puzzling if the benefits were included in the salaries.

So voters could get a clearer picture of the budget, Town Moderator Claire Smith, who was at the meeting as a voter, recommended postponing the vote.

Bill Heaney, a former chair of the Finance Committee, said he examined the budget carefully -- and the numbers simply didn’t add up. He wasn’t satisfied with Barrett’s answer.

“I can’t vote for this if I’m not getting an explanation,” said Heaney. “I’m sorry, guys.”

Voters threatened to slash the three salary increases of the top fire officials and instead approve a 3 percent increase for each position. Voters then approved a reduction in the chief’s salary, capping it at $129,474. That decision was later reversed after voters opted to adjourn until April 30 for a final vote on the budget.

Tense from the start, the meeting featured a request from Theresa Tello to use paper ballots to ensure secrecy during voting. Even though paper ballots were not used, several expensive requests from fire and water department officials were denied.

At issue for voters was the apparent lack of a long-term financial plan. Fournier asked why a vote taken five years ago, which authorized the spending of $1.2 million to buy land for a new fire station, was reversed on Monday. Barrett said officials didn’t have time to finish their “due diligence.” Also, some stipulations were placed on the land that officials didn’t agree with.

Fournier said he favored a new fire station and was “baffled” why, after five years, seemingly no progress had been made.

“It seems odd to me, with interest rates historically low, that we had a project this size…and we didn’t do anything with it,” said Fournier. “That distresses me.”

Jane Donahue, a former Selectman agreed, saying the district had to plan better.

“People are sending a message,” said Donahue. “We need to be doing things the right way instead of helter skelter without a master plan.”

To send that message, voters shot down a $1.3 million fire department request for a new ladder truck, a $2.5 million water department request to replace water meter readers and a $25,000 request for firefighters' protective clothing.

Discussion on a $85,000 transfer to fund upgrades to the fire department’s communications system sparked one firefighter to make an impassioned plea for safety.

The request, which was approved, represents one-third of the cost of replacing wires with a wireless, microwave system for radio communication. The town’s police and EMS departments will ask for the remaining funds at the April 23 Town Meeting.

Acting Wareham Fire Chief Pat Haskell said the new system will add radio coverage in West Wareham and allow for uninterrupted communication. Haskell said that’s extremely important as radio calls have been dropped during emergencies in the past.

After voters questioned the need for the system, fire department Captain Matt Rowley spoke.

“When you start talking about my personal safety – and I am the boot on the ground, I am the person saving you – I am going to stand up,” said Rowley.

He said voters had the right to question the district finances, but asked them to consider the safety of individual firefighters.

“I want to go home at 08:00 hours to my family safely,” said Rowley. “Please don’t put those of us who are doing the job on the table for you. That’s not fair to us.”

The Wareham Fire District annual meeting will resume April 30 at 7 p.m. in the Wareham High School auditorium.