Rockingham fire fees updated

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BELLOWS FALLS — The town of Rockingham is updating an ordinance that will allow all three of the town's fire departments to charge fees for out-of-the-ordinary circumstances or illegal burns. Currently, only the Rockingham Volunteer Fire Department can send a bill for some service calls under the current ordinance.

But Rockingham Town Manager Wendy Harrison said Friday the updated ordinance would expand that to include both the Bellows Falls Fire Department and the Saxtons River Volunteer Fire Department.

Bellows Falls is a paid, on-call department, while Rockingham and Saxtons River are all volunteer. The town of Rockingham, Harrison noted, pays for all major equipment for all three departments, which serve different areas of the town. Where the fees go was cause for concern for Rockingham Volunteer Chief Denis Jeffrey, who said the labor charges should remain with his department, which his department uses to buy small equipment or other expenses.

The issue came up, Harrison said, when Rockingham Fire Warden Lawrence White wanted to charge people who were illegally burning mattresses. He told Harrison that the current fee system was out of date. The proposed new Rockingham volunteer fire services reimbursement ordinance would allow the department to bill $250 an hour for any fire engine called out, $150 an hour for a rescue truck, and $250 for equipment use if only equipment and not a fire truck is used. Labor would be billed at $50 an hour per person, and the fire warden would also be billed at $75 an hour.

Currently, the fees are $150 an hour for an engineer, $100 an hour for a rescue truck and $20 an hour for labor.

The revised ordinance went through its first reading before the Rockingham Select Board earlier this week; a second reading will be either later in September or October. Harrison said she was working to expand the ordinance to include both Saxtons River and Bellows Falls.

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Jeffrey, the longtime volunteer chief in Rockingham, said his department doesn't charge for every call on Interstate 91, where the fire department often provides backup to the Vermont State Police at accident scenes. Charges are levied for "malicious incidents, nuisance incidents, motor vehicle accidents involving non-Rockingham residents, hazardous material incidents, non-permitted burns, permitted burns that get out of control, brush and wildland fires, special events and special/technical rescue or recovery incidents."

Jeffrey said his department used the fees it receives to buy equipment such as its new all-terrain vehicle, at no cost to the town. He said without the fees, the department wouldn't have been able to purchase that vehicle. The town recently spent about $32,000 repairing Rockingham's main response engine.

Select Board member Gaetano Putignano, who is a member of both the Bellows Falls and Saxtons River departments, questioned why Rockingham should keep the labor funds, since the town was paying for the engine repair. But other board members Stefan Golec and Ben Masure, who are both firefighters, said it was "a fair deal" for the volunteer department to keep some money. That way, Masure said, "they have some money to play with."

"It's a fair deal," Golec added.

Jeffrey said that if the volunteer department didn't get to keep its labor fees, he was afraid "nobody's going to show up" at service calls. Bellows Falls Fire Chief Shaun McGinnis weighed in and said he believes Rockingham should be able to keep the fees from its man hours. "They should go back to the department," said McGinnis, whose department is funded by the village of Bellows Falls.

With that, the revised ordinance passed first reading on a 5-0 vote.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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