Hot Topic: Hampton Fire Dept. and town board at odds over funding

T he Hampton Volunteer Fire Department and the Hampton town board are embroiled in a contentious contract dispute.

Fire department members say they weren’t given an opportunity to negotiate a higher contract and would consider cutting services if a new deal isn’t struck, while the town board believes it has given the department ample support.

Members of the department believe the town acted illegally and in poor faith when it failed to include them at the negotiating table and have retained a lawyer to reach a new deal. The town says no laws were broken and members of the department had several opportunities to provide their input before the contract was drafted.

“Basically, during the budget process, we gave them a price that we wanted for the contract. They never negotiated with us and never told us what it (the amount of the contract) was until the end,” Chief Joe Mead said.

In July, members of the department asked the town board for $37,000, an increase of $12,000, nearly 50 percent, to provide fire protection and other services. Mead said the current contract proposal isn’t enough to keep up with the soaring cost of operation and allow the department to upgrade its equipment.

The town, which is legally obligated to comply with the two percent property tax cap and faces a considerable spike in the amount it pays for workers’ compensation, proposed a ten percent increase which would have brought the department’s total allowance to over $27,000 and keep the town below the two percent tax cap. Officials say the fire department’s request alone would have increased the tax levy by nearly seven percent.

“We had hoped to do more but with the workers’ compensation issue, money is tight and is going to be for two more years,” said Supervisor Dave O’Brien, who added that the department’s annual allowance and cost of health insurance were the only expenditures that were increased on the town’s current budget.

Mead argues the town’s offer was presented to the members of the department so late in the budget process they weren’t given an opportunity to advocate for additional funding.

He said members were also upset that the contract included stipulations that required the department provide the town board with a monthly incident report and sign an agreement than any tax-based funding the department receives be used solely for fire protection and no other purposes.

Both of those stipulations have since been removed but it set a tone, Mead said.

“That’s when we started to notice they were trying to do things by themselves and weren’t including us in negotiations,” he said.

Town officials, however, say the budget process was entirely transparent and that members of the department had ample opportunity to express their displeasure with the contract.

According to the town’s minutes, at least one member of the fire department was present at every regular meeting of the town board from July through the public hearing on the budget in November.

“We worked line by line through the budget,” O’Brien said. “They knew that night what the amount we had budgeted was. They never said a word. How are we supposed to know they are dissatisfied?”

Officials say they have bent over backwards to assist the fire department. In 2011, the town increased the fire department’s contract from $14,500 to $25,500. It also provides the department’s building for $1 per year under a 99-year lease.

“I think the board has done a good job as far as the fire department goes,” Councilman Herb Sady said.

Tamme Taran, a member of the town board, said the department needs to do more to help itself.

“They choose not to do fundraising. They don’t think they should have to and that’s not the way it works,” she said.

O’Brien also suggested the department should apply for more grants.

Mead said the department has applied for grants, with little success, and are organizing a pair of fundraisers to be held later this year. He says he estimates the department ultimately needs $50,000 a year and if the town doesn’t work toward gradually increasing the department’s allowance to that amount, members will have little choice but to cut services.

“We’re looking for a contract that will help us now and in the future. Right now we aren’t able to save for the future. We’re doing this for the future of the fire company. We don’t want to cut services but if the town board doesn’t negotiate with us, we might consider responding only to injury and fire calls,” Mead said.

O’Brien said everyone on the town board wants a successful fire department but the town simply can’t afford the department’s demands.

“We’re more than willing to work with them but if we can’t, we’re willing to look at alternatives,” he said.

The town has scheduled a meeting tonight (Feb. 28) at 7 with the Office of Fire Prevention and Control to learn what some of those alternatives could be and to dispel some misconceptions they believe members of the fire department hold regarding the contract process.

Mead said the department’s attorney will contact the town’s attorney, perhaps as early as this week, to see if a deal can be hammered out.

“We’re not taking legal action right now. That’s the last thing we want to do. We’d like to keep this as drama free as possible,” he said.

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