Wareham Fire District voters approve reduced fire department budget

Water officials say expensive repairs on the horizon
Apr 30, 2018

After officials reduced the fire department’s budget and explained an $820,000 increase for the water department, voters passed a combined $12 million Wareham Fire District budget.

Held Monday with 108 voters attending, the meeting reconvened three weeks after voters demanded financial transparency from officials during a contentious session that lasted three and half hours. 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.

On Monday, officials returned with a fire department budget reduced by $340,000. Prudential Committee member George Barrett said reductions were made in the budget’s group insurance, clerical salaries and contractual benefits line items.

“We sought to address the concerns and lower the overall bottom line,” said Barrett. “We feel this is a reasonable compromise.”

Originally, officials sought a $6.9 million fire department budget. The approved figure was $6.6 million.

Before the vote, Bill Heaney, a former member of the Finance Committee, questioned a planned debt repayment for a new fire rescue truck. Last year, voters approved spending $795,000 for the truck, which still hasn’t been purchased.

“I don’t want to use the technical term ‘snookered’, but I feel snookered,” said Heaney. “We were told as a body that was the highest priority on the department’s capital plan.”

Heaney proposed eliminating $40,000 and $200,000 on line items that would be used to pay back the first loan payment, if the truck is purchased this year.

In response, Barrett said officials held off on the purchase following the retirement of former Chief Robert McDuffy. Currently, the Prudential Committee is searching for a new chief.

“We recommended not buying anything until we get a new chief in place,” said Barrett. “By zeroing this out that would preclude us from buying a new truck until this meeting next year.”

Voters shot down Heaney’s proposal to eliminate the loan repayments.

Before the water department’s $5.4 million budget – up 17 percent from last year – was approved, Superintendent Andrew Reid outlined looming, massively expensive repairs on the horizon.

Part of the problem is several unfunded mandates from the state related to water quality and safety. But the biggest expense will be replacing miles of pipes. In total, there are 170 miles of water pipes in the system, Reid said. Of that, 16 percent was installed before 1959 and will need replacing over the next several years to avoid failures. He said it costs approximately $1 million to replace 1 mile of pipe.

“The Board of Water Commissioners see that a wave is coming and we’re trying to prepare for that wave,” said Reid. “We want to try and do it a little bit at a time.”

To do so, the commissioners approved a 35 percent water rate increase this winter. The new rates take effect July 1.

Heaney noted that the increase isn’t something voters had control over at the meeting. However, they could send a message.

“The unfortunate part is that the setting of the rates is the sole authority of the water commissioners,” said Heaney. “We could cut the budget, but that doesn’t cut the water rate…The only way for that to be resolved is to vote the budget down in its entirety and in effect give the water commissioners 60 days to reconsider the rate increases.”

Voters didn’t heed Heaney’s advice, however, and the budget passed by a majority.