Onset Fire District meeting to vote on $3.7 million budget

Activist seeks several bylaw changes
May 16, 2018

The Onset Fire District annual meeting is set for Monday, May 21, with mostly standard budgetary and “housekeeping” items on the agenda. However, there are several bylaw changes proposed by an activist who has clashed with district officials repeatedly this past year.

The meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the Dudley L. Brown Veterans of Foreign Wars Post, located at 4 Gibbs Ball Park Road. All registered voters living in the Onset Fire District may participate.

The district, which provides water and fire service, is governed independently from the town. The Wareham Fire District, a separate entity, provides those same services for Wareham residents and is self-governed, too.

In total, 38 agenda items will be before voters, including the district’s $3.7 million budget, which funds the Onset Water and Fire Departments.

The budget is up $86,350 from last year, a 2.5 percent increase. Prudential Committee Chair Pamela Pike said the increases are related to contractual salary increases and healthcare costs.

Unlike last year, which featured a multi-million dollar request for a new fire station, Pike said the items at this year’s meeting are mostly “standard housekeeping.”

There is a request to transfer $255,000 from the district’s “free cash” account to replace 900 district water meters. Free cash refers to unspent, otherwise unrestricted funds. Pike said water commissioners and Prudential Committee members decided the upgrade was needed.

New meters will be more efficient and “in line with today’s technology,” said Pike. Because the money is coming from money the district has on hand, ratepayers will not see their bills rise, she said.

Officials are also seeking a $75,000 transfer from free cash to purchase a new backup generator. Pike said this winter the current generator failed during a storm, but was quickly brought back online through the efforts of district employees. The incident highlighted the need for a new one, she said.

“We came to the realization that we need a new generator so we can provide water when the power goes out,” said Pike. “It would be a crisis if that generator wasn’t functioning in the middle of a hurricane or storm.”

Most importantly, water service will be maintained for firefighting operations during an emergency, she said.

Also on the agenda are seven items submitted by activist Lisa Morales, who writes the blog Onset All Together. They are all related to tweaking the district’s bylaws. Over the past year, Morales has called for accountability from district officials on a range of issues, including releasing health benefits information.

In February, officials issued a “no trespass order” against Morales that barred her from the dtistrict’s main office, except for public meetings. Morales was accused of “aggressive verbal and physical conduct” and making “threats against members of the District’s administrative staff,” according to the order. Morales says the accusations are false.

The changes she proposes include ensuring that elected officials live in the district before seeking election. Should an official move out of the district they would have to resign immediately. That bylaw came about after Morales discovered Board of Water Commissioners Chair Ben Hughes had listed several address changes in and out of the district over the past three years.

She’s also calling for a change in health benefits for new employees. Currently, employees pay 10 percent of their healthcare bill with the district paying the rest. Elected officials have the same option. The bylaw, if approved, would require new, non-union employees to pay no less than 20 percent of their healthcare costs starting July 1. It would force elected officials to pay their entire healthcare bill after May 21.

Another bylaw would require officials to post meeting agendas at Wareham Town Hall and post the minutes of meetings for at least 30 days after approval.

That change would lead to more “transparency,” said Morales.

“It’s still like pulling teeth to get information, and it shouldn’t be that way,” said Morales.

The petition articles required the signature of 10 registered voters to be placed on the agenda. Pike said her board did not discuss the items submitted by Morales.