Onset Fire District voters approve $3.7 million budget, new water meters

May 22, 2018

Onset Fire District voters on Monday said “yes” to 900 new water meters and one backup generator. They said “no” to several bylaw changes proposed by an activist who has repeatedly clashed with district officials.

Those who attended the meeting, held in the Dudley L. Brown Veterans of Foreign Wars Post, acted on 38 agenda items. Most were standard, budget-related items. In total, $3.7 million was approved for the district’s budget, which funds the Onset Water and Fire Departments.

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 also self-governed.

The budget is up $86,350 from last year, or 2.5 percent. Driving the increase are contractual salary raises and healthcare costs.

Voters approved transferring $255,000 from the fire district’s “free cash” account to the water department. Free cash refers to unspent, otherwise unrestricted funds.

The money will be used to replace 900 water meters with new models. Officials said the move allows the water department to finish a replacement program started 10 years ago.

Onset Water Department Superintendent Kevin Sampson said there are 2,900 meters throughout the district. Over the past decade, 2,000 have been replaced. With the approval, all meters will soon be new, digital models.

By upgrading, Water Commissioners Chair Ben Hughes said the meters will allow one employee to take readings remotely, via radio, by driving through neighborhoods. That will save time and money, said Hughes.

Some voters questioned if it was legal to move money raised by taxes to the water department, which is funded by water bills. According to district’s attorney, it was lawful. Sampson said the new meters should be in place within six months.

Voters quickly approved another transfer from free cash – $75,000 for a backup generator. Officials said the generator is needed to keep water flowing during a power failure. The need was demonstrated earlier this year after a devastating nor’easter knocked out power for two days. Because of that only one well was operational. If the well failed, officials would have turned off water to residents to supply the fire department in the event of an emergency.

Because the funds are being transferred residents’ water bills or taxes will not increase.

Seven items were added to the agenda via petition, which requires the signatures of 10 registered voters.

Lisa Morales, an activist and the author of the blog Onset All Together, championed all of the items. Over the past year, Morales has called for accountability from district officials on a range of issues, including releasing health benefits information, a residency requirement for elected officials and making meeting minutes easily available.

One change, if approved, would have forced employees hired after July 1 to pay no less than 20 percent of their healthcare costs. Current employees pay 10 percent with the district paying the rest. Officials elected after May 21 would have had to pay the entire cost of their healthcare bill.

Morales said the move would be a cost-saving measure.

“This is an opportunity to move forward and curb spending,” said Morales, noting that no one currently employed would be affected.

According to the district’s attorney, the move would have violated state law if adopted and the item wasn’t acted voted on.

Another item, which would have required elected officials who move out of the district to resign immediately, was not approved.

Lenny Gay, a former clerk/treasurer for the district, said it’s already difficult to attract people to serve.

“We’re coming out of a rough time, and I don’t think we should burden elected officials with a residency requirement,” he said.

The other items that failed to pass included one related to holding the district meeting and election on the same day, preventing call firefighters from serving on the Prudential Committee and posting meeting minutes inside the district office for at least 30 days.

Regarding the meeting minutes, Clerk/Treasurer Mary McCoy said they are on file inside the district office for anyone who asks.

“They are available,” McCoy said. “That is state law and we comply with it.”