by Enfield Councilperson Robert Lynch; Posted July 5, 2023
Sometimes it’s best to step back and just let words speak for themselves.
On June 14th, our Enfield Town Board made what no doubt was its most monumental decision of 2023; with its five members also taking most likely the most significant action of their current terms. By unanimous vote, we ended decades of our Enfield Volunteer Fire Company answering directly to this Town Board. Instead, beginning on (the amended date of) August first, the EVFC will deal contractually with a five-member Board of Fire Commissioners. Our Town Board will initially appoint these commissioners. But on December 12th, you, our residents, will elect them.
A new day will dawn in Enfield. Our Town Board once before considered switching to a “Fire District” governance model. It was back in 2007. Abruptly—and somewhat mysteriously—the idea dead-ended one August night. This time, it didn’t.
I’d remained undecided on the issue for months before our June 14th meeting. Going into the legally-mandated Public Hearing, I still wasn’t sure. I let the public speak. All but one person in attendance supported the change. But I listened to her voice as attentively as I did to the others. Both sides of the issue held merit. Yet I still had to choose.
A most important element toward resolving my dilemma was to hear my four Town Board colleagues speak. Unlike me, they’d pretty much made up their minds before the meeting, I suspect. You deserve to hear us each. So here, transcribed from the June 14th meeting minutes (in speaking order), is what each of us said:
Councilperson Robert Lynch (in introduction): “I would like before we take this monumental decision-making; I would like each of our Board members who has made an opinion, has taken an opinion on this one way or the other, to state his or her reason for taking that position. And if you’re still undecided, still have to be convinced; then you can give both sides of the argument.”
Supervisor Stephanie Redmond: “It’s clear it’s going to save the Town taxpayers money. And it also has become to the point where I don’t feel that the Town Board provides proper administrative facilities to the Fire Company.
“It’s a little bit skewed in a way that we’re the holder of the workmen’s comp and things like that, but we have no oversight over actual employee/employer relationships. We can’t decide any sort of discipline. We have no authority, whatsoever. So we’re carrying liability and workmen’s comp. policies for something that we have no oversight in. We have no oversight in expenditures, things like that, yet we’re also expected to work with their budget.
“But I don’t think anybody on this Board has been engaged enough with the Fire Company to really assess those needs the way Blixy [Taetzsch, Enfield’s Town Bookkeeper] does for our Town, for example. And having somebody like Blixy on the Fire Commission would be great, if we could find someone like that. But having someone really delve into the finances in that aspect and then come up with a budget, I think, is a much more responsible way to deal with it. And having the Fire District govern itself, I feel like is—it’s the way that they can really have oversight over their insurance policies; all those things that—I feel there’s a big disconnect at this point between the Town having oversight over the Fire Company.”
Councilperson Cassandra Hinkle: “I’m probably the politically least experienced here. But for me, one of the draws is the transparency of it, both for the Board and for the Fire Department. We are always saying that we want to hear the folks of the Town, and especially, I think the most of my career here so far, this has been that voice; that the primary—that the Town wants this. And the Town can give the input they want. I think this is an example of what we’ve been—what our job is. And despite whatever differences have been between the Town and the Fire Department, I very much respect the voices of Denny [Hubbell, Fire Company President] and Greg [Stevenson, Fire Chief] and Ellen [Woods, Fire Company Secretary], which are all very much in support of this as well. So that‘s what my vote is.”
Councilperson Jude Lemke: “I agree with that. I would add that we simply don’t have the technical expertise to make reasoned decisions about what the Fire Company needs. And putting on Fire Commissioners who have real Fire Company experience in there would be a big added benefit. But I agree with both Stephanie and Cassandra’s comments.”
Councilperson James Ricks: “I haven’t been here for a minute, so I missed a lot of the discussion. But I remember last year or earlier this year a lot of the Fire Company’s contention seemed to be with—or questions seemed to be about finance, and new equipment and things like that. I was listening to Brad; my man, Brad [Pinsky, special Town counsel]. He seemed to have answers for, you know, purchases and things that would seem to be kind of out of our range.
“Definitely, I agree with Stephanie. She said some things I don’t even understand what she was talking about. But she said them with such conviction that I would agree with her. ‘Cause I was wondering about the Fire Districts; how our Fire Company would feel about it. And they seem to be in favor of it, from what I’m hearing. So, Yeah, I would go along with the Fire District.”
Supervisor Redmond (with an additional thought): “If I can add one more thing. It really bothers me that the Fire Company does not have a reserve. And I understand that the reason they don’t is that previous Boards have gutted them of that. I want them to be able to build that reserve. I think it’s essential for them to be able to balance their budgets in the future. And they’re not going to under the current setup because they’re afraid that it’s going to get gutted again. So that safeguards them.”
Councilperson Hinkle: “I think it’s the easy access to education, also…. And having that access—and cheaper access as well—is part of this, too.”
Councilperson Lynch: “Everybody knows that I came into the meeting undecided about how to proceed. And through the discussion tonight I remained undecided how to proceed. Well, obviously I’ve got to make a decision.
“I’ve seen both sides of the argument. I’ve heard valid points on both sides tonight.
“I am sympathetic to those who say—and there’s one person who’s not a participant in tonight’s hearings, so it’s not anybody in the room or online who said it—but who said to me that this is like a fox governing the hen house.
“Because the prediction is that the votes for Fire Commissioners will be primarily of firefighters. The people who will run for Fire Commission positions will be firefighters. And it will be; of firefighters, by firefighters, for firefighters. And that fear is that we will have runaway spending. We will have runaway taxes.
“We’ve heard one member tonight of the public express that concern; that, essentially, our Town Board is abdicating its responsibility. It’s a responsibility that some members of this Board, rightly or wrongly, decide that they want to cast aside. I don’t cast it aside. I’m willing to shoulder; I’m willing to negotiate a new Fire Contract, if that’s something our Board has to do. And I will be fair to the Fire Company, and my record has shown that; that I will be fair to the Fire Company.
“That’s on one side of the argument, the negative for keeping it like it is. And I guess the argument I always make, at bottom, is, ‘If it’s not broke, don’t try to fix it.’
“But it is broke. It’s been broke not for a year. It’s been broke for decades. It’s been broke. And I wrote these words and I posted them on my website the other day. And I want to read them. They are strong words:
“’In my opinion, Enfield’s difficulties with its fire company have never been as much of a budget problem as a people problem.” Money enters into the discussion, of course. But it invariably intertwines with some personality dispute. Decade after decade, as Town Board members and volunteer firefighters come and go, what always festers among us is a pervasive, corrosive underlying atmosphere of distrust and envy, one that borders on outright enmity, among leaders of the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company, Town politicians, and some of Enfield’s prominent residents. Best put on a bumper sticker, some of us believe the EVFC ‘spends too much money and has too many toys.’ How many times must we draw attention to the Fire Company’s truck wash?’
“All right, I will commend the Supervisor, who has worked with me the past couple of years to heal some of the wounds with the Fire Company. We’ve worked well. I think we’ve worked well with Denny, and Greg, and Ellen, and people in the Fire Company to try to bring the two parties together and to get rid of this corrosive sense of enmity that we seem to have evolved over the decades. I take pride in that. The Supervisor is to be commended as well. That’s to our credit.
“And then came last October, when we argued about $25,000 for Turnout Gear; a hearing that turned into a discussion about an SU—a $50,000 SUV command vehicle and the cost of a volunteer banquet. And then, there was another issue, which I cannot discuss. But it came to the front this year. People in the Fire Company and people on this Board know about it. I can speak no more to it.
“But the system is broke. We have to try something new. This may not work. It may be the worst decision this Town Board ever made. But I think we have to make it. We have to try something new. This Town Board, for whatever reason, can’t consistently play in the sandbox with the Fire Company leadership, and we’ll see if a Fire Commission can do it. I will vote in favor of the change.”
Our vote followed. Transition to a Board of Fire Commissioners to govern the fire service won approval, without dissent. The future lies before us. Wish Enfield well.