A Troubling Leap of Faith

Commentary by Enfield Councilperson Robert Lynch

Posted October 29, 2023

On Tuesday, Halloween, Enfield voters will face one of the most important financial decisions they’ve been asked to make in decades.  Sadly, too few of us know of what’s at issue and how important it is.  And among those who do know what’s at stake, many won’t take the time to weigh the options, recognize the matter’s significance, and register their preference at the polls.  It’s easier to take the kids out to trick-or-treat.

In what I’ve termed a “snap” election, based on its fast-paced scheduling and the apparent desire by some to foreclose a reasoned, thoughtful evaluation of the issues at hand, the recently-appointed Enfield Board of Fire Commissioners, custodians of the newly-constituted Enfield Fire District, ask you to ratify two resolutions on Halloween day and night.  Combined, the measures would purchase two fire trucks from the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company (EVFC) and authorize the long-term bonding of each for a total of $1.05 Million.

I will not advise you how to vote on these measures.  That is a choice for you and for you alone to make.  I will only tell you that I plan to vote “No” on those resolutions that day.  And here’s why I will.

Engine 602; the $825,000 Enfield pumper.

October 19 was the night of our Public Hearing into the Fire District’s proposed 2024 Budget.  But instead, it quickly became a hearing about the bonding referendum.  During my opportunity to speak, I requested that the Fire Commissioners provide a spreadsheet showing us, Enfield’s voters, a side-by-side comparison of the total, multi-year cost of the proposed bonding compared to the cost of the shorter-term bank financing that the EVFC has secured for both trucks.  After the Public Hearing adjourned, the Commissioners’ volunteer Secretary told me she might attempt to put such a spreadsheet together.  As of this writing, neither I nor the community has been given that requested side-by-side comparison.

On Saturday, October 28, I sent an email to each Commissioner to renew my request.  “I believe that we in Enfield need to know the total, long-term financing costs of these two vehicles before we can cast an informed vote on whether to bond or not,” I wrote.  I continued, “And lacking such information, I, myself, stand inclined to reject the bonding resolutions, knowing we can revisit long-term financing during some subsequent year.”

Lest some misinterpret my intentions, I make several points clear: 

Point One:  I do not cast any aspersions on our Board of Fire Commissioners or assign them any ill will or devious intent.  Each member of this young, fledgling Board is a good person.   He or she is attempting to perform his or her task to the best of that person’s ability. 

Yet the Board of Fire Commissioners is a governmental body seeking more direction than its members have ever been provided.  Commissioners admit that.  As I see it, the Enfield Board of Fire Commissioners is a group of five cast adrift in a flimsy, rubber life raft amidst a choppy sea without any sight of shore.  And to shoulder this group of five—or for them to shoulder it upon themselves—the task of cobbling together more than $1 Million in emergency financing for a pair of fire trucks disserves them and also disserves the residents of Enfield.

I voted last June to transition Enfield’s fire protection services to an independent Fire District Board of Commissioners.  But I did so with mixed feelings.  At the same time,  I also stated my preference that our Town Board slow the process down; that we not establish the Commission before sometime in 2024; that we give the process the opportunity to evolve at a reasoned pace. 

But the delay I had recommended would have demanded that our Town Board negotiate a short, one-year extension of Enfield’s current, three-year Fire Protection Contract with the EVFC.  By their statements and by their votes, the Town Board’s majority members made clear they had no stomach to undertake such an effort or the desire to put themselves out and do a little extra work.  I would have negotiated the one-year contract by myself, had the Board assigned me that task.  But I know the majority would never have allowed that.

So I joined a unanimous Town Board in forming our Fire District.  I did so not because I necessarily wanted to, but rather because I believed I needed to.  There was no viable alternative.  The current system is “broke,” I told the Town Board that night.  And I explained with these 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.”

Transition, I believed, was necessary.  I still do.  But I’d hoped for better.  Though the forum has since changed, the “pervasive, corrosive underlying atmosphere of distrust” has just moved to its new venue. 

Enfield’s Board of Fire Commissioners, meeting October 23rd.

When a referendum intended to be held in December suddenly gets shifted to Halloween based on an attorney’s phone call to someone in the middle of the night, that does not heal our community’s wounds.  When a Fire District’s budget gets inflated 24 per cent just four days after that budget’s Public Hearing, that does not heal our community’s wounds.  Our Board of Fire Commissioners is young.  It lacks seasoning.  It fails to look before it leaps.  This hurried-to-the-voters bonding referendum exemplifies the deeper systemic problem we have.  As I wrote of the Commissioners after the Board bumped up the budget last week, “Their naiveté stood on display that evening.”

I’d hoped that removing Enfield’s fire service oversight from a politicized Town Board and placing it in more independent hands would make a difference.  Sadly, it hasn’t.  Nothing has changed.  The fight has just moved to different meetings.

Point Two:  Never infer that my choice to report the prospect of Enfield’s returning its newly-purchased $825,000 pumper truck to the factory implies that I support such an action.  I do not.  But when Board of Fire Commissioners’ Chair Jim Mathews first raised that prospect at the Public Hearing October 19, I felt duty-bound to report it as the newsworthy, jaw-dropping revelation that it was.  Words carry significance.  And Jim Mathews’ comment that night made news.

As I stated at the Public Hearing on the 19th, I have a sound, practical reason for not supporting return of the pumper truck to its manufacturer.  It’s based on a vote that our Town Board took last February to endorse the Fire Company’s purchase of that apparatus so as to enable the EVFC’s securing a tax-free bank loan.  Though our Town Board was never fully informed of our risks at that time—I know I wasn’t—our vote that night could have obligated our Town Government to compensate the bank for any losses it might incur should the Fire Company later default on its loan.

Would such an event happen?  Maybe yes; maybe no.  I’m not a lawyer.  But returned fire trucks, I’m told, carry terrible resale values.  And banks keep attorneys on retainer for a reason.  Just think of what could happen if the EVFC defaulted and the bank sued the Town.  Enfield could be in the worst of both worlds.  It could have lost its fire truck, but still find itself forcing taxpayers to pay for its cost.  And with a pile of Town legal bills to pay as well.  Ouch!

Nevertheless, the fire truck’s potential surrender was an idea raised in public, and it deserved to be put on the table, even if later shot down.  I’ve done more than anyone else on this Enfield Town Board to support our firefighting volunteers and EMT’s.  Some of what I’ve done has never even reached the public eye.  Yet to pretend that a particular course of action does not exist, especially when the Fire Commissioners’ Chairman raises its possibility, prevents a candid, reasoned discussion of the widest range of choices open to a community.  They may be choices good or bad. 

And when, during a public meeting, one Fire Commissioner chose to impugn EVFC leadership with these words, “You bought an $825,000 engine and (had) no way to pay for it,” I believe the truck’s legal status—and its future—stand as fair topics for open debate.

Point Three: My vote this Tuesday to oppose more than $1 Million in fire truck bonding is a vote about boundaries, fiscal boundaries. It’s also about my belief in the need to exercise restraint when a decision we’re being asked to make just doesn’t feel right.

As I stated in the Public Hearing, I recall that the City of Ithaca had a “hot-shot” Controller a few decades back.  He initiated the practice of bonding vehicles.  I’m told it was a disaster, and it got the City into big financial trouble.  How different are we?  One of our Fire District’s lawyers has counseled us that many other fire districts bond their apparatus.  Maybe a majority of them do.  But he also told us that districts possessing sufficient resources don’t bond; they pay cash instead.

Nonetheless, just because others bond their fire trucks doesn’t mean that we in Enfield should bond ours.  Our Town does not bond its dump trucks or snow plows or its excavator.  And a 20-year bond for that flashy new engine will have us paying for its purchase up until the point that its useful life is over and it’s headed out the door.  We might even be making payments after it’s gone.  Maybe you’d finance your car like that, but I would not. 

And whether it’s with home mortgages, auto loans, or credit cards, compound interest has a way of multiplying, of grossly inflating the cost of what we purchase. And that’s why I want to see that side-by-side spreadsheet.  I don’t want an $830,000 fire truck to cost $2 Million or more by the time the bonds are paid off and I’m in my nineties. 

And no, I shouldn’t have to compile those estimates myself.  It’s the Board of Fire Commissioners that wants Enfield taxpayers to bond these trucks.  They should do the math.  And they should publicize the results.  They, the Commissioners, want our affirmation on Tuesday.  They should earn it.  Let all of Enfield know what we’re getting into if and when we ratify those two big bonding measures on Halloween.

As I wrote on this website a week or so ago:

 “I have a problem with mortgaging the future when it will likely cost us more in the long run.  I have a problem with banking my hopes on elusive ‘grant money’ that may never arrive.  I have a problem with bonding things that roll, rather than buildings that remain in place, anchored to the earth.” 

And I still do.  That’s why I will vote “No” on Ballot Resolutions One and Two placed before us in Enfield’s Halloween referendum.  This is not an emergency.  We can wait.  We can get by with the financing we have for at least this first year.  We can withstand a one-time tax spike.  Delay will enable us to deliberate calmly, methodically, and with all of the facts before us.  Let’s give a Million Dollar Leap of Faith the time and caution that it deserves to learn if it’s indeed right for us in Enfield.

Your vote is yours.  My vote is mine.  I hope we each meet at the Enfield Fire Station this Tuesday morning or evening and make our respective preferences known. Voting is from 9 AM until Noon, and then, again from Six until Nine at night.  Agree or disagree with me as you choose.  That’s the beauty of Democracy.  The majority rules.  Just also remember:  It’s your money.  And it’s your Enfield.

Bob Lynch