BRATTLEBORO — The Select Board on Tuesday night approved allocating $350,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to hire three new firefighters.
On Wednesday morning, Fire Chief Leonard Howard said the three new positions are a good start. He said for optimal coverage, he’d like to have nine new firefighters on staff.
Having 10 people per shift would give the Fire Department the ability to cover simultaneous EMS calls and fire calls, and to cover sick and vacation days. Currently, he has only six per shift.
The town has 21 firefighters on staff. Howard said to guarantee the safety of the firefighters and the general public, he should have about 30.
He would like to see the new positions added over the next two to three years.
“To be fiscally responsible, you can’t do it all at once,” he said.
He said the $350,000 allocated by the board will be used for salaries, as well as equipment, for the new positions.
The town has about $2.7 million in stockpiled ARPA funds. The board also voted to set aside $1.7 million in ARPA funds in case the town decides to equip a standalone EMS service.
Setting aside the $1.7 million means the town won’t need to borrow money for fully equipped ambulances, said Howard.
Prior to making its decision, the Select Board discussed the measure with the public.
Kate O’Connor, who served six years on the board, some of it as chairwoman, suggested the board hold off on the allocation and allow Town Meeting representatives to make the decision on Saturday. She said the reps should decide whether to allocate the money or assign the expense to the general fund.
David Levenbach, District Three Town Meeting member, strongly objected to the board’s decision, arguing there hadn’t been “sustained public participation” in how best to use the ARPA funds.
Instead, the town has “a staff generated list” of projects, said Levenbach, “some of them undoubtedly worthy, but still no sustained public engagement in the use of this once in a lifetime gift of money.”
He urged the board to open up the discussion to the general public before making a decision, adding that he will be offering an amendment during Town Meeting to add $350,000 to the budget to pay for the new positions at the Fire Department.
Board Chairman Ian Goodnow said the funding would pay for the three firefighters for the next 15 months.
“We know that this is an emergent need that needs to be addressed now,” he said.
And board member Daniel Quipp noted that if the town budget is amended Saturday to add the $350,000 rather than using the ARPA funds, that money won’t actually be available until July 1, when the next fiscal year begins.
“We actually want to hire these people, like, yesterday,” he said.
Goodnow said that eventually, having new positions at the Fire Department means the salary costs will be assigned to the general fund.
“It’s kind of transitional,” he said, “but then also we’re hearing that they’re going to need it no matter what. So that’s a reoccurring cost, which maybe should come from just the general fund.”
“This is just the opportunity to be fiscally responsible and make sure the town has the assets that it needs, whatever the outcomes or decisions in the future may be,” said board member Jess Gelter, who served two years on the board and was attending her last meeting as a member. “Maybe [Town Meeting] will support us by adding it to the budget, and that would be wonderful. But if they don’t, it’s there, and we can get there.”
Earlier in the evening, the board accepted a plan from Town Manager John Potter meant to determine how best to provide emergency services in Brattleboro, even though O’Connor urged the board to let newly elected, but not yet sworn in, members help make the decision.
“I’m going to pour some super cold water on you folks,” she said. “They’re going to be two new people on it. They’re the ones that need to be involved in this discussion. They’re the ones that need to be giving town staff the guidance. ... I think for the health of this community that you would not have these conversations tonight, that you would delay them until the first meeting in April.”
“The ultimate decision is going to be decided by the new board,” responded Goodnow. “All we’re proposing is a very, very kind of broad direction that we’re going in making decisions here. The new board is ... going to be part of this whole discussion.”
Franz Reichsman, who won a one-year seat on the board on March 7 but hasn’t been sworn in yet, thanked O’Connor for her comments, but said he hadn’t heard anything that he objects to in terms of the planning to put together this process.
“What happens in the actual process?” he said. “I certainly want to be part [of that].”
Peter “Fish” Case, who also won a one-year seat on the board, said if there was no harm in delaying, he would advocate for that.
“As presented tonight, I don’t hate that either,” he said, adding “But for perception reasons ... if we pass this thing tonight, it looks bad.”
The board voted 3-0 to accept the plan presented by Potter, with Gelter and Tim Wessell, who was also sitting in his last board meeting as a member, abstaining.
“I’m really excited that there will be two new folks who don’t have the baggage of the challenging relationship, or the challenging conversations that we’ve all been through in the last year to look at the data and move forward,” said Gelter, who has been on the board for two years.
Before the vote, Potter described the process that will result in the town either taking over the delivery of EMS, contracting with a third party to provide the service, or some combination of both.
“If there’s anything that you approved tonight that the new board doesn’t want to do, you can always revisit it,” Potter reminded the board. “We’re trying to move the town’s business forward. And we hope that this board would act responsibly, just like we know the next board would act responsibly.”
Prior to 2022, the town operated on a hybrid model, in which Rescue Inc. and the Brattleboro Fire Department both provided some level of EMS service.
“Under this model, the ambulances were regional and not dedicated to Brattleboro,” said Potter. “In other words, there was never a guarantee that an ambulance was within town limits and available for rapid deployment.”
After not renewing its contract with Rescue Inc., the town contracted with Golden Cross Ambulance, out of Claremont, N.H., which is also a hybrid model different from what Rescue provided.
“It means that the ambulances are dedicated to being in Brattleboro and ready to respond around the clock,” said Potter, who said he hopes the town can settle on a long-range solution in advance of fiscal year 2025, which begins July 1, 2024.
“What we have seen from the activity of the Fire Department and Golden Cross is that they’re able to meet those expectations that the community really said were important,” said Gelter. “Ninety percent of emergency response calls are happening in six minutes or less. ... [T]hat’s what we get from having a dedicated town service.”
A request for proposals will be issued to get some idea about how much services would cost, whether provided solely by a contractor or via a hybrid model, said Potter, to compare against how much it might cost the town to provide its own stand-alone service.
“This feels like setting up the next board for success,” said Quipp.