by Robert Lynch; November 3, 2023
With Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins firmly in opposition and with a second Fire Commissioner agonizing amid indecision, the newly-formed Enfield Board of Fire Commissioners late Thursday adopted its first-ever budget, a 2024 plan that would spend over $483,000 next year, a total boosted a full 24.1 over a draft budget that had gone to Public Hearing, but was later revised.
Meanwhile, Thursday, Fire Commissioners waived off until a meeting next week what may become their next controversy: potential legal action on an anonymously-written mass mailing that some may view as harmless outreach, but others see as a crime worthy of prosecution.
As for the budget, “the optics of it raise some questions,” Fire Commissioner Marcus Gingerich remarked. His comment alluded to the double-digit increase in the budget’s bottom line, a change Commissioners made only four days after the October 19th Public Hearing when residents got their lone opportunity to comment.
“This has taken a huge jump” from what was initially proposed,” Gingerich observed at Thursday’s meeting. “It kept climbing and climbing.”
Gingerich cast his vote to support the budget only after taking long, pregnant pause. Voting much more readily for the budget were Commissioners Geoff Hollister, Robyn Wishna, and Chairman Jim Mathews. The Chairman blamed higher than first-expected legal fees and a last-minute recalculation of projected bonding costs for the sudden budget elevation, changes penciled-in at an earlier, October 23rd meeting, held days after the hearing.
Casting his no vote, Fire Commissioner and Enfield Highway Superintendent Rollins focused on what he alleges is a lack of transparency and accountability among Enfield Volunteer Fire Company (EVFC) leadership concerning Company finances. Rollins zeroed-in on the $76,000 the EVFC received from the sale of a two-decade old pumper truck that the fire company offloaded several months ago to a fire company in Pennsylvania. Rollins maintains the proceeds should have been used, instead, to pay down the cost of the new pumper the EVFC bought to replace it, the one Commissioners must now, themselves, pay for.
That new pumper, most notably, took center stage in a referendum just two days before Thursday’s meeting. In a close-vote, Enfield voters on Halloween approved resolutions that allow the Enfield Fire District to purchase and subsequently bond both the new, $830,000 pumper, as well as a tanker truck that the EVFC bought in 2020 and still has $220,000 in unpaid debt . As approved by voters, the new Fire District will incur $1.05 Million in first-ever bonding obligations.
In Tuesday’s referendum, bonding on the more-expensive pumper passed by only eight votes. Voters approved the truck’s up to 20-year bonding commitment, 77 votes (52.7%) to 69 (47.3%)
The margin of support for the less-expensive tanker’s bonding was only slightly larger, 79 (54.5%) votes in favor, 66 (45.5%) opposed, a 13 vote margin. On social media, opponents of the bonding later complained that had the public been given more time to know of the election and to have studied bonding’s impact, the bonding resolutions might have lost at the polls.
Gingerich remarked Thursday that the closeness of Tuesday’s voting “supports that there’s a lot of people out there with serious concerns.”
“I don’t think we realized how much the new Fire District would add to the bottom line,” Gingerich, a non-firefighter, observed.
What drives the current budget increases may not so much be the District’s own establishment as it is cost of the new pumper truck. Commissioners advanced the bonding option in their attempt to minimize the upfront cost of the vehicle and to spread its debt payments over a longer number of years, for as long as two decades.
The Enfield Town Board transferred fire service oversight to its newly-established Fire District in June. The District took effect in early August, and shortly thereafter the Town Board appointed its current five interim Fire Commissioners. Each will serve until year’s end. A December election will choose permanent replacements.
“At the eleventh hour to question about the bottom line and complain about optics suggests you think things might not be on the up and up,” Fire Commissioner Robyn Wishna, an EVFC volunteer, declared. Her remark came in reply to Gingerich’s comment over public perceptions.
Gingerich clarified that he was not alleging impropriety, but only that multi-year firefighting expenses keep rising, and he’s not exactly sure quite why.
“Marcus, if you’re truly concerned, we should take up those concerns at a subsequent meeting,” Mathews advised. Zooming into the meeting from a motel in Augusta Maine, the Chairman sought to confine matters that night strictly to the budget and the budget alone. State law required that the Board adopt its 2024 spending plan no later than that evening.
“We’re in a position where we have to act,” Mathews cautioned. “We are under the gun right now.”
In casting his lone dissent, Commissioner Rollins objected to how the EVFC stockpiles its money and how it allegedly hides its internal finances from public scrutiny. Rollins’ objection continues a decades-long, running argument between the Enfield Fire Company and its critics. And it’s likely the stand-off will continue for as long as Buddy Rollins sits on the Enfield Fire District’s governing board.
“I have requested some financial information,” Rollins told fellow Commissioners Thursday. But all I’ve been told, Rollins said, is “why are you asking for this?”
The answer to Rollins’ frustration came from Enfield Volunteer Fire Company President Dennis Hubbell, who addressed the Commissioners shortly thereafter. In effect, Hubbell said that what Rollins sought was none of Rollins’ business.
To answer Buddy’s question, “Our counsel says no” Hubbell told Commissioners. “It’s firemen’s money; we don’t have to provide any documentation,” Hubbell asserted.
At the September 23rd meeting, Hubbell had said that the $76,000 in fire truck proceeds were put into the “Firemen’s Fund,” used for various expenditures, including to purchase portable radios.
To expedite Thursday’s meeting, Chairman Mathews recommended that attorneys for the Commissioners and the EVFC meet to resolve the access issue Rollins had raised. That could prove dicey in itself, as the Commissioners’ lawyer, Brad Pinsky, and EVFC counsel Mark Butler, are said not to like each other.
By trimming Thursday’s agenda to its budgetary bare bones, Mathews and the Commissioners deflected what could now become Enfield’s next controversy. It’s one involving a mass mailing of postcards to community residents over the past weekend. Listed on Thursday night’s initial agenda was an item of “New Business” that Commissioners entitled, “Fraudulent mailing; referral to law enforcement.”
The mailing involved a batch of anonymously-authored postcards that were found in Enfield residents’ mailboxes the weekend before the October 31st referendum. The cards referred to the bonding referendum, but urged no specific vote on it, either for or against. The cards also encouraged persons to run for Fire Commissioner in the upcoming December 12th election. It notified residents of forthcoming Board of Commissioners meetings and provided Commissioners email addresses.‘
The legal concern, voiced by some—most particularly by key players within EVFC leadership—is that the person or persons behind the postcards’ circulation misleadingly indicated that the mailing had originated from the Enfield Town Hall and that the Fire District’s Commissioners had authored it. Neither implication was true. Commissioners said they knew nothing of the advisory until they, too, opened their mail boxes.
“None of us knew anything about the post cards,” Chairman Mathews wrote in an email to all Commissioners Monday, the day before the referendum. “I find it both suspicious and disturbing,” he remarked.
Exactly what action the Board of Fire Commissioners may take, or what legal liability the postcards’ true author or authors may face, remains unclear. But expect Commissioners to take up the matter at their next meeting, Monday, November 6, when they handle matters postponed from Thursday’s agenda.
The Final Enfield Fire District Budget approved by Fire Commissioners Thursday calls for the Fire District to spent $483,691 next year. As such, total spending will rise nearly $94,000 from the $389,736 budget figure Commissioners had earlier aired at the October 19th Public Hearing. Driving much of the last-minute increase is the revised annual debt service for bonding the two fire trucks. Originally, Commissioners had projected $65,000 in annual loan payments. Four days later, they’d revised the debt service upward to nearly $100,000.
By contrast, the current year’s Enfield Fire Budget, one coming at the end of a three-year fire contract with the Town Board, holds closer to the Public Hearing’s budget number. Figures shared at Thursday’s meeting projected a 2024 Enfield Fire Tax Rate of $1.78 per $1,000 assessment. For the year now ending, the Fire Tax is $1.72.