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Posted on: January 29, 2020

Colchester to Benefit from Unified Town-wide Fire Department

FOR RELEASE On:

January 27, 2020                                                                        

Colchester, Vermont  

 

Colchester to Benefit from Unified Town-wide Fire Department

The idea to consolidate fire services in Colchester has been considered since the Town’s historic settlements in the Bay and Village grew together decades ago.  It was recommended by the Heritage Project in 2012 and the Governance Committee in 2014.  In the last three years, the chiefs of Colchester Center and Malletts Bay fire departments convinced the Selectboard that the lack of response by volunteers to emergencies during weekday daytime was endangering lives and property.  Additionally, full time paid staff were necessary to provide adequate response to building fires during weekday daytimes.  The Selectboard agreed and felt that paid staff made more sense under a consolidated approach. Much thought and consideration have gone into the evolution of Colchester’s fire services.

Over the last year, the Selectboard has engaged the Prudential Committees – the boards legally responsible for the fire departments- regarding the future of fire services in Colchester.  The Selectboard allowed the consideration of multiple options for the future of each department:

  1. Continue as is with their own funding as Fire Districts #2 and #3 have the authority to tax properties directly;
  2. Merge together with a single fire chief and continue to receive Town tax funds;
  3. Merge with the Town as a combined paid and volunteer department. 

The boards responsible for the fire departments chose to merge with the Town.  Fire District 3/Colchester Center Fire Chief Ladd made a motion on July 2, 2019 to move forward with the merger with the Town.  “Sandy motioned that CCVFC is moving forward to discuss a merger with the town provided they are a part of the process.”  Several important meetings regarding the merger agreement occurred with Fire District 3/Colchester Center. Chief Ladd chose not to attend the majority of these meetings which also included their board chair and attorney. 

The Colchester Center Fire Chief did not engage the Town when asked about his suggestions relating to the budget although the Town Manager, Emergency Management Director and Selectboard Chair provided him multiple opportunities.  The Town responded to all questions and issues posed by Fire District 3/Colchester Center.  An example response on October 15, 2019 is here on pages 71-80

The agreements approved by the fire district boards transfer fire protection assets to the Town.  However, those assets were purchased with Town taxpayer funds and are not the property of any individuals or the fire departments but rather the fire districts which are “owned” by Town residents within those districts.  A report on funding of the fire departments since their inception in 1951 is included here on pages 18-22

Funding for fire service began in 1951 as a 2% Town-wide tax, of which 1% each was made available to the fire service in the Village and the Bay as noted here on pages 13-17. From 1951 to 2020, annual contracted fire expenses rose from 2% of total property taxes to 9.5%, making it the third largest expense of 25 service groups in Colchester Town government with costs of $1,009,651 annually.

The contract between the Town and Colchester Center Fire was not cancelled. The Contract ending June 30, 2019 was not renewed due to non-compliance by Colchester Center Fire in the areas of budget, audit and contract compliance as summarized on pages 76-78 and as detailed on pages 7-75 here.  Despite this, the Town and CFD3/Colchester Center, including its fire chief, negotiated a contract for 2019-2020 over the course of several months and multiple meetings.

CFD3/Colchester Center’s own auditor stated: “invoices could be posted to incorrect accounts or paid inappropriately or even fabricated.” This finding is based on a sampling of invoices that found:

  • “6 of the 23 invoices tested could not be located in the paid invoice file. All checks issued should have back up of some sort attached.”
  • “9 of the 23 invoices tested had no supervisor’s approval noted.”
  • “None of the 23 invoices had account numbers assigned to them.”

In FY 18, the Colchester Center Fire contract with the Town included $162,200 for debt services and only $87,200 was spent.  Likewise fuel was budgeted at $54,000 and only $12,409 was spent.  Together this totals $116,591 that was charged to the Town but not spent on the intended items.

The Towns concerns were heightened as the Colchester Center Fire department requested paid staff and annually increased funding from the Selectboard.  Town property tax paid expenses have risen by 2.7% annually over the last decade, during which time the police budget increased 2.6% and Colchester rescue at 1%. In comparison, fire service costs rose by 5.6% over that same period. 

Much consideration and deliberation went into the consolidation.  The Town provided written invitations to the chiefs of Malletts Bay and Colchester Center, and their board (Prudential Committee) chairs to attend all Selectboard meetings on this topic in the last year.  All this information has been in the packets for those board meetings and the fire chiefs are both on the Selectboard packet distribution list. 

The Fire Chiefs of Malletts Bay and Colchester Center attended a special meeting of the Town Selectboard and their boards (Prudential Committees).  The chiefs were invited to be a part of the planning process. We are thankful for those who participated and have made this plan strong.  Seth Lasker, our Emergency Management Coordinator and former Burlington fire chief, addressed the technical aspects of the effort, understanding that the future Unified Town-wide chief will evolve and implement the plan.   Aspects of the plan have evolved in 246 pages of documents the Town has posted which can be linked to here

To hire the Unified Town-wide Fire Chief, the Town conducted a qualifications based selection process.  To avoid a conflict of interest, no person with staff from their fire department applying was directly involved in the hiring decision.  The Colchester Center Fire Chief was directly asked to provide questions, qualifying requirements, and other thoughts the Town Manager should ask when interviewing candidates for the unified Fire Chief. The request was ignored.  The hiring committee included former Burlington Fire Chief and Colchester Emergency Management Coordinator Seth Lasker; Williston Fire Chief Ken Morton; Colchester Police Chief Doug Allen; Colchester Human Resources Director, Sherry LaBarge; and Town Manager Aaron Frank.

The Leaders of the Malletts Bay Fire Department issued the following statement: “On behalf of the Fire District #2, the MBFD command staff and its members: The Malletts Bay Fire Department fully supports the town merger of fire protection assets. MBFD has been working alongside the town for the past year and our membership looks forward to working together with the 3 agencies as one going forward. We feel as though this merger will benefit the taxpayers and business owners on the town of Colchester. The help from the town and the three full time staff will supplement daytime staffing issues and increase the safety of the public and our members. We look forward to continuing to work with the town and the members of the other agencies between now and July to ensure we will provide the highest level of service that will result in better fire protection for residents and business owners of the Town of Colchester. “

The Town Selectboard, Manager, department heads and staff made funding of the new town-wide fire department a major priority beginning in August 2019. The Town’s proposed budget for FY 21 (July 1, 2020-June 30, 2021) includes a $207,000  increase for fire protection services including a full time town-wide chief and three firefighters to address the deficit during weekday daytime.  Eight other service groups had funding reduced in order to provide more funding to firefighting without increasing costs to our taxpayers.  This leaves our tax rate lower than it was in 2013 while still providing a 20% increase to fire protection services. 

The Town Selectboard firmly believes the volunteers will be the core of the departments, and that the benefits of volunteerism go far beyond the service of firefighting by creating life-long connections to others and to the community.  With five months until the Colchester Fire Department begins operating, the Town will be meeting with all fire leadership and firefighters who wish to continue service.  It is the Town’s hope and intention that all volunteers will bring with them the best skills, knowledge, abilities and traditions and work together as one department to make our fire service even stronger.  

The official Fire Protection Service update will take place at the regularly scheduled Colchester Selectboard Meeting on January 28, 2020 at 6:30 PM. The meeting takes place on the 3rd floor of the Colchester Town Hall located at 781 Blakely Road, Colchester, VT.

Contact Information: Jeffrey D. Bartley, Colchester Selectboard Chair, JBartley@colchestervt.gov 802-503-5801

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