PARIS — On Wednesday, the 18 per diem firefighters for the town of Paris received notice they would be laid off at the end of September.
In an Aug. 30 letter sent by Town Manager Vic Hodgkins to each per diem firefighter, he explained the actions at the June 17 town meeting have resulted in the layoffs. There, residents voted 52-37 to cut the Fire Department’s budget by $145,629.
“In order to continue to provide basic fire services for the remainder of the fiscal year with the limited resources budgeted for that purpose, the Town has determined that it must lay off its per diem fire force,” Hodgkins wrote. “We regret that our financial exigencies require this step to be taken.”
The layoffs become effective Sept. 30 and Hodgkins advised the per diems to turn in all of their town-owned or town-issued equipment, including keys to the Fire Station, at the completion of their last scheduled shift.
“All currently-scheduled per diem shifts for the month of September, 2017 through September 30, 2017, will be honored,” he wrote. “If you are also a ‘call’ member of the Department (or employed in any other Town position), your employment in those capacities is not affected by this layoff.”
Selectboard Chairman Scott Buffington – who seconded Budget Committee Chairman Rick Little’s Fire Department motion at town meeting – noted the funding reduction requires officials to reorganize the way the Fire Department is run. In his motion, Little wanted to nix the per diems, go back to an all volunteer fire department and cut the fire chief’s salary to a $5,000 a year stipend plus hourly wages.
“Forward thinking on the part of the taxpayer allowed for funding for a three-month transition period,” Buffington said. “This transition period was the most responsible way to still provide excellent coverage while respecting the wishes of the taxpayers from town meeting.”
At Monday’s selectboard meeting, Buffington recognized the 16 volunteer firefighters of the department, some of whom will be trained an at upcoming fire academy on Oct. 5.
Deputy Fire Chief Jon Longley – who will become fire chief after the transition is complete and Fire Chief Scott Hunter leaves – said on Thursday there is a lot of misinformation being spread about the the issue.
“I personally encourage and welcome any current Paris firefighter on the roster who wishes to remain a Paris firefighter to stay with our organization. However, anyone wishing to pursue other avenues I fully understand given the circumstances,” he said. “Quite a few of them have decided to stay on, those that are all local, geographically speaking.”
Not all those in Paris are happy with the Fire Department cuts, including Selectboard Vice Chairman Chris Summers.
“I regret that Paris is going down this path,” he said Tuesday. “Thank you to the per diem firefighters for their service and commitment to Paris.”
Budget Committee member Richard Merz handed in a petition two weeks ago with 245 valid signatures seeking to restore the funding to the Fire Department and to give residents more time to discuss the subject at a future town meeting. At Monday’s meeting, selectmen voted to send the document to the town’s attorney to examine.
Buffington promised the town would continue to provide “excellent fire coverage at a lower cost to the taxpayer.”
He also thanked the per diems.
“We truly thank them for their loyal service and are absolutely thrilled to see that many are returning to serve Paris as volunteer fire fighters,” Buffington said. “This is outstanding public service and we could not be more proud as our highly trained volunteer Fire Department continues to grow to levels not seen for years.”
In November 2016, 17 per diems voted to form a union after selectmen pledged to cut $500,000 from the fiscal 2016 budget. Negotiations between Teamsters Local 340 and the town began in May of this year, which have not been smooth sailing.
Teamsters Local 340 Treasurer-Secretary Lorne Smith, who is representing the per diems, filed three complaints against the town with the Maine Labor Relations Board. Smith also said the union had funding in a controversial flyer recently sent out by the Friends of Paris Firefighters that criticized Buffington and Little.
The next negotiations session between the town and the Teamsters was scheduled for Sept. 18. It is unclear at this time if the session is still on.
Smith could not be reached for comment.