Enfield Fire Spending Props Pass

by Robert Lynch; September 12, 2023

Not so much savoring victory as relishing relief. Chair Jim Matthews (center) and Enfield Fire Commissioners meeting following Tuesday’s trio of victories.

Ellen Woods, former Town Clerk, an Enfield firefighter and EMT, let out a shriek of delight as the tellers announced the results.  To her and to many in the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company (EVFC) as well as to those on the newly-created Commission that oversees it, the Enfield fire service had just dodged a bullet.

By a margin that was comfortable, yet not overwhelming, Enfield voters Tuesday approved a trio of financial resolutions affecting fire service spending.  The principal measure will raise a state-created spending limit, that if left unchanged, could have seriously crimped the EVFC’s finances next year.  The Enfield fire service never previously had to fall within that limit, but now must do so because the Fire Company serves under a Fire District and no longer answers directly to the Enfield Town Board.

In a heavier-than-usual turnout for a special election of the sort, the ballot resolution to raise the Statutory Spending Limit for the Fire District to $575,000 won approval Tuesday 102 votes (56.7%) to 78 (43.3%).  Two other ballot propositions, those to establish capital reserve funds for the purchase of trucks and equipment, passed by slightly greater margins.

Following the tallying of 180 paper ballots and the announcement of the results, the five-member Enfield Board of Fire Commissioners convened briefly.  They accepted the results, thanked the three volunteers who oversaw the referendum, and then adjourned to address other business at a meeting later this month.

Had the ballot referenda failed, however, one can imagine Tuesday night’s meeting would have been far longer.  Commissioners would have seen the need to ponder their resolutions’ defeat and plan alternative strategies.

By estimates that have ranged wildly, failure of the spending limit proposition could have limited the Fire District next year to spend as little as $220 – $275,000.  Under the final year of its current Town Board-approved contract, EVFC allocations already top $377,000.  And the recent addition of an expensive new pumper engine to the Fire Company fleet could add an estimated $112,000 to next year’s debt service.

At a Public Hearing September 6th, Jim Matthews, Chair of the Board of Fire Commissioners, had warned attendees that the referendum’s failure by voters “would be pretty disastrous for a lot of reasons.”  Possibly, the Chairman said at the time, “We would have to get rid of apparatus. “

Neither Matthews nor anyone else on the Board of Fire Commissioners took time at their brief meeting Tuesday to comment on the three ballot measures’ passage.  All members were probably relieved that they’d just avoided a major financial obstacle.

A tally of Tuesday’s votes indicated that most of those who rejected the resolution to raise the Statutory Spending Limit also opposed the capital reserve measures that accompanied it on the flip side of the ballot.  Yet a few of those who opposed the spending limit’s increase approved the reserve funds’ creation.

By almost identical margins of 65% to 35%, Enfield voters approved the establishment of a vehicle purchase, replacement, improvement, repair and maintenance fund (117 votes to 62); and also a reserve fund to purchase, repair, and maintain equipment (117 votes to 63).

Our “High-Tech Ballot Box,” we Enfield election inspectors joked with referendum voters who used it.

The Board of Fire Commissioners has yet to decide how large those new  reserve funds will be or how close the 2024 Enfield fire budget will creep to the new $575,000 statutory spending cap.  Commissioners and their attorney have stressed that setting the higher limit doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll come close to it next year.  Opponents to the increase have never been so sure.

The Board of Fire Commissioners must rough-in a next year’s budget by late-September.  That budget will later face a Public Hearing, but will not go to referendum.

The Fire District’s next election, scheduled for December 12th, will focus on people, not money.  Voters will then choose permanent replacements for the five interim Fire Commissioners whom the Town Board appointed in August to get the Fire District’s governance going.

The Enfield Town Board decided in June to transfer fire service oversight to a Fire District, and appointed Commission membership later in the summer.  The District took hold August first.  A prime complaint registered by some who trooped to the polls Tuesday was that the Town had given the public too little notice regarding the District’s creation or the need for the spending limit resolution that they’d been asked to decide that day.

Two Enfield Councilpersons—this writer and Councilperson Jude Lemke—along with Fire District Treasurer Cortney Bailey, provided unpaid oversight for Tuesday’s six-hour referendum.  The Board of Commissioners Tuesday thanked the trio of election officers as well as Town Clerk Mary Cornell for volunteering their time.  “We could not do the referendum without it,” Matthews said.