PARIS — After feeling blindsided by the roughly $145,000 cut from the Paris Fire Department at annual town meeting, Budget Committee member Richard Merz is circulating a petition to revisit the issue at a special town meeting.
Merz needs to collect 245 signatures for his special town meeting petition, according to Paris Town Clerk Liz Knox. He began gathering signatures last week.
“I am going to be busy,” Merz said about the number of signatures he must obtain. “You’re going to see me out on the streets.”
Merz is the first to admit that his move for the special town meeting is personal.
“About a year and a half ago I had a stroke in the morning. I was home and it hit me,” he said. “It didn’t take me long to figure out what was going on, but by the time I figured out what was going on and I called 911, I couldn’t even say the word ‘stroke.’ I had to struggle.
“Within five minutes the Paris Fire Department, the EMTs, came with a big fire engine,” he continued. “They were very professional and methodical. They stabilized me and they calmed me down.”
He was handed off to PACE Ambulance after that. Merz credited the town’s EMTs for saving his life and after his near death experience, he went down to the department to thank them.
“That’s why I am saying this is personal to me,” Merz said. “I love our Fire Department. I love our town.”
At the June 17 town meeting, Budget Committee Chairman Rick Little made a motion to cut the $384,640 Fire Department budget by $145,629 to $239,011, which was seconded by Board of Selectmen Vice Chairman Scott Buffington.
Little’s proposal included eliminating per diem firefighters and returning to a volunteer department, leaving a three-month window for the transition, and reducing the fire chief’s salary from $40,000 per year to a $5,000 annual stipend, plus hourly wages.
Town Manager Vic Hodgkins told the audience he was unsure if the town was legally allowed to make these changes as Paris is in the middle of union negotiations with the per diem firefighters union, noting things must remain status quo for the time being. Little requested town officials honor the will of the people.
The Fire Department cuts passed 52-37, with two people abstaining.
Merz brought the issue to the forefront of the Monday, June 26 selectmen’s meeting when he discussed it in open session and announced he would collect signatures for a special town meeting. He said the topic needs to be discussed openly, honestly and with evidence.
“This is not the way I wanted to spend my summer,” Merz said, who received applause from some members of the audience.
Fellow Budget Committee member Mike Brogan agreed with his colleague’s assertion that the topic needed to be discussed more thoroughly, noting there was a unanimous vote by the Budget Committee for the Fire Department’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal.
“Then two to three weeks later this cut came through with all the details that [were] never discussed in our Budget Committee,” Brogan said. “I just feel as a person who probably had more information than the average person, I was blindsided by that.
“I understand that’s the process and that’s what happened and we’re all going to deal with the consequences of that,” he continued. “I just hope we don’t end up paying more money in attorney fees and lawsuits than what was cut from that Fire Department budget.”
“That was the outcome of the vote and we need to honor that,” Buffington said.
Brogan and Merz accused Buffington and Little of preplanning the cuts. Buffington said he supported the move, and Little, who was in the audience, did not comment.
Per diem model
Also in attendance at the June 26 selectmen’s meeting was former Fire Chief Brad Frost, who explained why the town moved from an all-volunteer Fire Department to a mixed model, including per diems, roughly seven years ago.
“Back in 2010 there was probably three, maybe four … gray-headed firefighters that responded to calls in the town of Paris. None of us were interior firefighters,” he said. These firefighters are now all members of the 50 Plus Club for their years of service.
“There was many times I would call surrounding towns … to make sure they covered our town because I didn’t have anyone to respond except myself and maybe one other. … It was a necessity that we put per diems on then to cover the town of Paris. I can count probably five or six houses we saved because we had per diems on because of response time and quality people.”
In 2010, voters approved at a special town meeting to add per diems to the department’s ranks. Part of Buffington’s issue with this model is that when the per diems first came on, they were supposed to only work 32 and then 36 hours per week. Since December 2016, one firefighter has consistently worked roughly 50 hours each week and is not clocking overtime, which is legal due to federal labor laws.
As of June 26, Buffington had handed in eight volunteer applications for the Fire Department, which he noted having a volunteer fire department could be a viable option for the town.
Frost worried about moving back to an all-volunteer Fire Department negatively affecting the town’s ISO (Insurance Services Office) rating.
“I think that necessity [for per diems] is still there, unless somebody can actually tell me that the town is going to be covered the way it should be,” he said. “This could affect our ISO rating [and] workman’s comp rate.”
Buffington thanked him for bringing up the ISO and workmen’s compensation ratings, saying it was something the town needed to look into.
Selectman Chris Summers asked Hodgkins if the town’s ISO rating would be jeopardy if it moved forward with eliminating per diems.
“From every source that I have heard from, there is no way for it to not negatively impact us,” Hodgkins answered. “It is my understanding and, again please, I am not an expert on this, that your ISO rating is developed on combination of of factors, not just one factor.”
He said this includes the number and type of apparatus, number of personnel and response times, along with others.
“We hear about this ISO rating all the time, right? I’ve heard … a bunch of different things that affects an ISO rating, I was told that water flow, how much water you have the ability to flow [is a factor],” he said. “Number one indicator of an ISO rating is the number of fires that you have in your community.”
According to isomitigation.com, there are four major areas that the ISO rating is based on: emergency communications, fire department, water supply and community risk reduction. Each has several factors included in each category.
Buffington wants an outside, non-biased source to discuss the town’s ISO rating. Fire Chief Scott Hunter said a firm from Massachusetts was in Paris in March reviewing the ISO rating.
The town received its “excellent” ISO rating of 4 about 11 years ago when it was a volunteer Fire Department, according to Deputy Fire Chief Jon Longley and Frost.
As for Merz, once he has collected enough signatures, he can turn in the petition, which will be addressed by selectmen at a future meeting.