By Tony Hallett (via Lincoln News)
PASSADUMKEAG – Residents will determine the immediate future of the town’s fire department, an organization that has been in place since 1984, during a special 9 a.m. town meeting Saturday morning, resolving a crisis that began to spiral after the departure of then Fire Chief Nick Rossignol on March 14.
The first article on the agenda, after the one to choose a moderator, will ask voters to decide if they want to contract out the service “with a neighboring community at the discretion of the selectmen.”
Howland has proposed a $10,000 coverage contract in exchange for a $1 lease on Passadumkeag’s tank truck. Howland and Greenbush are the only two communities within five miles of the town’s center that have a fire department.
Howland’s department is staffed 24 hours a day. The five-mile radius is important, especially if Passadumkeag opts to contract the
service, as insurance rates increase dramatically for towns that do not have a station within that established road mileage. Last month, selectmen did discuss reaching out to both Greenbush and Lowell to see if they would be interested in providing coverage as well as Howland.
Earlier this month, selectmen awarded the ambulance service contract to Howland. The second option on the meeting’s warrant is to see if residents would regionalize fire departments with a neighboring community “at the discretion of the selectmen.”
Regionalization had been a subject being pursued by both departments, and currently Board Chairman Todd Rogers is one of the town’s representatives on a joint fire committee with Howland. Assistant Fire Chief Randy Davis is the second member. However, if the regionalization article passes, it may not be an option that can be pursued with Howland.
“We have offered regionalization in the past, and they have been very vocal in the past that it was not wanted,” Howland Town Manager David Wilson said. “To regionalize, you need to have a fire department.”
Wilson said if Passadumkeag demonstrates a good faith effort to rebuild its department, such as last Saturday’s Easter recruitment event, then the discussion about regionalization can resume. If not, the only option Howland is prepared to offer is a contract.
“The option we gave them is a contract to consider, or they can go off on their own and break off from Howland,” Wilson said.
Rogers had, in the past, been against a Fire District. Recently, he has supported a Fire Region, stating it is different than a district. However, both Wilson and Howland Fire Chief Josh McNally said there is no real difference, just the name.
The special town meeting became necessary after residents voted to not fund the department during the annual town meeting and the inability for selectmen to appoint a new fire chief due to the governing ordinance of the department. Maine law requires that an organized town has a fire chief, even if it does not have a department.
Both actions called into question the legitimacy of the department, along with its roster including just two Passadumkeag citizens. That legitimacy also nullified any mutual aid agreements the town had with other communities, as it does not have the ability to provide aid itself.
In the interim, the Howland fire department has been providing coverage for the town, as part of a 30-day agreement created to allow Passadumkeag time to determine its next steps to continue to provide fire protection for its residents.
Both articles are vague, however, with what town officials plan to do in the event either passes. With no specific community named, selectmen would be authorized to form an agreement with any community, regardless of proximity or level of service.
The final article that was listed on the warrant, to see if the town will vote to update and/or create a new and revised edition of the ordinance that governs the department, was removed prior to the meeting as it is required a public hearing be held on any proposed ordinance or ordinance change prior to a town meeting.
Rogers said the selectmen have drafted a new ordinance for the town. No date for a public hearing has been set. The final warrant will seek approval for $49,680 to be spent for the winter plowing. Lee “Buzzy” Dudley was awarded the contract during the last regular selectmen’s meeting.