Petition seeks to reinstate Bellows Falls firefighters

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BELLOWS FALLS — Therese Catani-Brock, a property manager in Bellows Falls, was stunned one day when firefighter Dave Bellimer pulled into her driveway.

She had called the Bellows Falls Fire Department shortly beforehand, after she thought she had smelled propane in her home. When she praised Bellimer for arriving so quickly, she said, he had a distressed look on his face.

"Don't get used to it," he told her. "After Dec. 11, I'm out of a job."

Catani-Brock decided to do something about that. On Wednesday, she turned in the remaining signatures needed for a petition seeking the reinstatement of Bellows Falls' four full-time Fire Department positions, which were cut by the Board of Trustees in August.

Fire safety is a personal issue for Catani-Brock. When she was 5, she said, she was caught in a house fire. Her local fire department saved her. Many of the people she has been talking to in gathering signatures for the petition are people with disabilities or parents who are worried about their children.

"It's been quite a journey in the last six to seven weeks to show them how imperative it is to keep these guys [the firefighters]," she said.

What helped Catani-Brock realize the Bellows Falls Fire Department's importance was Bellimer, a family man and a paramedic in addition to being a firefighter. He makes $13.64 an hour, according to information from the Rockingham's finance office and municipal manager.

"He's not in it for the money," she said.

On July 20, voters directed the Village Board of Trustees to cut the budget by $241,290. On Aug. 9, the Board of Trustees started the budget cuts by laying off all four full-time firefighters, effective Dec. 11.

The village promptly created a Fire Department Implementation Committee, which suggested that the village hire a full-time fire chief and staff the rest of the department with on-call firefighters.

On Nov. 9, Catani-Brock submitted a petition to the Rockingham Town Clerk asking that the Village of Bellows Falls raise $165,333.77 to keep the four full-time Bellows Falls Fire Department positions.

That petition was not accepted, as it fell short of the requirement that it be signed by 5 percent of Bellows Falls registered voters.

Catani-Brock believes that the invalid signatures were mostly the result of people from other villages within Rockingham, who didn't realize they don't have an official say in what goes on in Bellows Falls, and people who did not realize they weren't registered to vote.

Catani-Brock doesn't believe many village voters realized what the $241, 290 budget cut would mean for the fire department. She's been knocking on doors for the past six weeks to remind them.

"The people are coming out in droves," she said.

The results of the July 20 village re-vote, she said, came from misinformation. Some of the people she talked to, she said, were afraid to sign the petition because they didn't want the trustees to see their names on it. She thought it was for political reasons, she said. But she's been challenging residents to, "dare to care; that's my motto," she said.

Municipal Manager Shane O'Keefe said it's his understanding that the petition would require the Board of Trustees to call a public meeting to vote to raise and appropriate the $165,333.77. The Town Clerk still has to confirm that the petition is signed by only registered voters and that it is valid.

Catani-Brock wanted to thank all of the people who signed her petition and urged the Bellows Falls Firefighters to, "keep fighting the good fight."

Harmony Birch can be reached at hbirch@reformer.com, at @Birchharmony on Twitter and 802-254-2311, Ext. 153.


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