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?

My beloved hometown of Buxton got some fantastic news last week: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security just shelled out $441,460 to hire us a fire department!

Actually, we already have the trucks, the rescue units, three stations, a full-time chief and some 84 volunteers, part-timers and others who do their best to keep Buxton’s 8,000 or so residents safe from fire and other calamities large and small.

What we haven’t had, beyond that fire chief, are any full-time firefighters. Thanks to that federal grant, however, we’ll soon have four full-timers – at no cost to us local taxpayers – for the next two years.

That leaves me, at the risk of raining on this parade, with two questions:

First, what happens two years from now?

“I imagine it will be a topic of discussion,” replied Jean Harmon, one of Buxton’s three selectmen, in a moment of blissful understatement.

And second, should the federal government really be in the business of paying for services that local municipalities are too miserly to pay for themselves?

Or, as Fire Chief Nathan Schools put it to me last week, “At some point, you have to stop doing things on the cheap.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. When it comes to folks without access to enough food or much-needed health care (to name but two measures of a compassionate society), I’m all for the federal government maintaining a safety net for those who might otherwise go hungry or die a preventable death.

At the same time, I’m sympathetic to those municipal officials who labor mightily to keep those local services intact even as things like state revenue sharing (I’m looking at you, Gov. Paul LePage) get pulled out from under them with little warning and even less justification.

Still, this federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant has me flummoxed.

Folks who have lived in Buxton a lot longer than my 12 years will tell you there was a time when the volunteer fire department worked like a charm: At the sound of the alarm, a sizable contingent of workers at the local mills would make a beeline for the nearby firehouse, go extinguish the fire and then make the relatively short trip back to work.

No longer. Just as Buxton has grown in population to be 31st among Maine’s 488 municipalities – from 3,135 residents in 1970 to an estimated 8,086 today – so has it become a Portland bedroom community where most people head far out of town in the morning and don’t return until sundown.

That leaves Schools, now in his second year as chief, to patch together as much protection as he can with part-timers who work as full-time firefighters in surrounding communities and use Buxton to supplement their income, four students from Southern Maine Community College’s Public Safety Student Live-In Program, and the half-dozen or so volunteers still close enough to respond while the rest of the townfolk are away at work.

The consequences of being spread so thin: Buxton often pays neighboring communities to transport an injured or sick person to the hospital for lack of a local firefighter qualified to do so.

Equally disconcerting: The International Organization for Standardization, whose Public Protection Classification ratings are used by insurance carriers to help determine homeowner policy premiums, currently rates Buxton at 9 on its scale of 1 (excellent) to 10 (where’s the garden hose?).

In short, Buxton until now has gotten what it’s paid for: a fire department that has failed over the decades to keep up with its rapidly changing demographics.

Enter the feds.

The Department of Homeland Security’s $320 million-per-year SAFER program grew out of concerns, fueled first by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and then by recession-induced shortfalls in municipal budgets, that too many local fire departments were not up to the task of 21st-century public protection.

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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