February 16

Bill Nemitz: Feds ride to rescue of Maine towns too stingy to update fire department

Buxton gets a grant that will pay for four full-time firefighters for two years. So, then what?

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Designed back in 2004 to phase in the new positions via a steadily decreasing federal subsidy over five years, the program switched in 2012 to a straight, 100-percent grant for two years (or, as Schools noted last week, three years if you hire a veteran). After that, it’s either pick up the whole cost locally or give your new firefighters their walking papers.

Fretted Schools, “I don’t want to look somebody in the eye right now and hire them and, in two years, lay them off.”

Meaning two years hence, Schools will find himself on the hot seat before the local selectmen, the town budget committee and the annual town meeting. His message to all of the above: The time has come to increase Buxton’s annual fire department allocation (currently $734,000) by a head-smacking 30 percent.

Sounds like a hard sell.

“That is an understatement,” replied Schools.

His only hope is that by then he’ll have demonstrated the crucial role the four full-timers – in reality, that’s one person on duty 24/7 – can play in reducing emergency response times that now run 17 minutes or longer from the main station at Bar Mills to the outlying village of Chicopee.

Selectwoman Harmon, a resident of Buxton the past 24 years, agrees that hard data will make or break Schools’ inevitable request for more money.

“My experience is that residents of Buxton don’t like a lot of change,” she said. “And they are especially concerned about their taxes. It truly is a money issue – as it is with other towns.”

Fair enough, although Buxton’s current property tax rate of $12.50 per $1,000 valuation appears well in line with the rest of York County and the state, which as of 2011 averaged $12 and $13.40 respectively.

Beyond the tax rate, though, Harmon sees a direct correlation between support for an increased fire department budget and that dreaded call to 911.

“That emergency, whatever it may be, is the most important thing at that moment in someone’s life,” she said. “Some people will look at (picking up where the SAFER grant leaves off) as improving their peace of mind and their lives. Other people will look at this as dollar signs and say, ‘Yes, we can afford it,’ or ‘No, we can’t.’ ”

All in good time. For now, Buxton need only wrap itself in Uncle Sam’s $441,460 fire blanket and, like so many other municipalities on the SAFER award list, leave the hard questions for later.

Except for one: Shouldn’t we be paying for this in the first place?

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

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