Lincoln consolidation study: Fire costs are 'borderline excessive'

Lincoln consolidation study: Fire costs are 'borderline excessive'

LINCOLN - As the 2014 goal to have a fire consolidation referendum on the ballot gets closer, facts about the number of fire calls and how much the individual districts cost taxpayers are starting to become available to town officials as they look at potentially restructuring the entire system.

But compiling that data - as well as information from a more focused independent study, to be paid for at the next Financial Town Meeting - may bring the town close to the deadline to file a referendum question for 2014.

"You could certainly do the referendum without the study, but I wouldn't recommend it, especially if it's binding," Town Administrator T. Joseph Almond told town councilors at a Public Safety Committee meeting on Aug. 19.

Among the information to gather would be the number of firefighters, stations and pieces of equipment to ensure adequate response time, said Almond, who said the town would try to preserve the jobs of the firefighters currently employed.

This issue is not about the firefighters, he said, "They do a terrific job."

The study questions would have to be developed soon, he said, so costs can be determined in time for the budget to be submitted before the winter holidays, when the Budget Board starts to prep for the FTM. The money is not currently budgeted, Almond said.

He noted that if the referendum question needed to be submitted before the study was completed - potentially in May 2014 - councilors could decide to simply ask voters if there is an interest in pursuing fire consolidation in general.

"No matter what, the study has to happen," he said, to create a fire district that would best serve Lincoln if the town imagined they had nothing in place and started from scratch.

"Because I don't see an urgency, collect as much as you can and make a real informed decision," he told the councilors.

Almond told The Breeze last week what he does know at this point, and that nothing is surprising yet.

* The six fire districts have a combined cost of more than $5 million, based on last year's budgets, Almond said. Add in the town's rescue department, and the cost equals $6.8 million. The cost has "grown to a point now" of being "borderline excessive, if not excessive," he said, when oversight and a system of checks and balances is needed.

"I just don't think anyone should be spending millions of dollars of taxpayers' money with no oversight," he said. "You've got some pretty unchecked taxing ability going on."

* That total does not include the amount of pension debt in each district, which is unknown because some have not been audited, he said. There is a total of $2.6 million of debt for trucks and buildings alone.

By comparison, Almond said the town's police department budget is $4 million a year and includes their pensions, while the rescue has two trucks and four people on duty and runs for less than $2 million.

* Fire departments responded to 4,500 calls last year, but the breakdown of those calls has yet to be identified.

* Those calls were attended to by some of the 35 full-time and 73 part-time firefighters, the full-time equivalent hours of which also remain to be seen, Almond said, adding that there are also 52 callmen paid to go on a call or stay in the station that equate to more than 50 full-time positions.

* Between the districts, there are 10 engines, three ladder trucks, one heavy rescue vehicle, three boats, three utility cars and five chiefs' cars.

"The next step is to study things we don't have readily available," Almond said.

But should voters approve a plan, he wants to ensure it will be enacted exactly as planned. After watching similar situations in Cumberland and Coventry play out, and voters not seeing the precise plan put into place, he said, Almond recommended Town Councilors look into submitting enabling legislation to the General Assembly prior to the townwide vote.

If Lincoln votes "X," he wants to make sure they do not get "Y," he said.

"History has shown they'll let you do a piece of it," Almond said, but there is "still a high regard for individual district charters in the General Assembly."

Going to the General Assembly with a referendum question before getting permission to execute the results is "the flaw," Almond said, in other plans.

"That's been the hold-up as it turns into a fight afterwards," he said. "It appears the General Assembly is giving much more weight to district charters than anyone anticipated they would."

He said town officials must also become well versed in literature on National Fire Protection Association standards, one of which asks towns to have 14 firefighters on duty at all times.

While Almond said he favors NFPA standards on safety and equipment, the 24-7 staffing standard is something he said "no single community" with a population less than 30,000 can afford to do.

Unless those 14 firefighters come from contracts agreed upon with other towns, it would cost the district $10 million, he said. Meanwhile, there have been no simultaneous calls in the past 20 years, that he can find, with neighboring communities.

"That's where the argument gets silly," Almond said. "There is absolutely no reason why we can't have a contract with Smithfield or Cumberland or both."

Public Safety Committee members have already met with the fire district chiefs, and a meeting of the commissioners is planned for Monday, Sept. 9, at 6:30 p.m., at Town Hall.