Wareham Fire District annual meeting continued after budget questioned

By Matthew Bernat | Apr 10, 2018
Photo by: Matthew Bernat From left: Wareham Water Department Superintendent Andrew Reid, Assistant Chief John Kelley, Acting Fire Chief Pat Haskell and Water Commissioner Edward "Jay" Tamagini wait for the annual meeting to start on Monday.

Faced with big increases and few answers, voters demanded financial transparency from Wareham Fire District officials at Monday’s annual meeting and postponed a decision on the district’s budgets until April 30.

Officials sought approval for a combined budget of $12.3 million for Wareham’s fire and water departments – a 16 percent increase from last year. The district, which provides water and fire service, is governed independently from the town. The Onset Fire District, a separate entity, provides those same services for Onset residents and is also self-governed.

Usually a brief affair with little debate and several dozen registered voters, the annual meeting lasted three and half hours and had more than 115 people in attendance. Voters questioned officials on several fronts and hope to have a clearer picture of the district's budget in three weeks.

“There’s an intellectual void here,” voter Jeffrey Fournier told officials. “You’re not equipped tonight to tell us the answers. I want to give you the opportunity to give us the answers.”

He spoke after officials struggled to explain hefty salary increases for the fire department’s three highest paid members: the chief, 1st assistant chief and 2nd assistant chief. The budget calls for increasing the chief’s salary from $125,703 to $136,250, the 1st assistant's salary from $87,003 to $104,585 and the 2nd assistant’s salary from $86,432 to $97,405.

Prudential Committee Chair George Barrett said those numbers show a change in how the budget is crafted. Now, said Barrett, the salary figures include training and education benefits that were previously represented in the "contractual benefits" line of the budget.

That explanation confused voters further, as the "contractual benefits" line had increased more than $67,000. It wasn't clear, voters said, where the budget was reduced to accommodate for the increase in the salaries. And, several people noted, that a 34 percent increase in "contractual benefits" was puzzling if the benefits were included in the salaries.

So voters could get a clearer picture of the budget, Town Moderator Claire Smith, who was at the meeting as a voter, recommended postponing the vote.

Bill Heaney, a former chair of the Finance Committee, said he examined the budget carefully -- and the numbers simply didn’t add up. He wasn’t satisfied with Barrett’s answer.

“I can’t vote for this if I’m not getting an explanation,” said Heaney. “I’m sorry, guys.”

Voters threatened to slash the three salary increases of the top fire officials and instead approve a 3 percent increase for each position. Voters then approved a reduction in the chief’s salary, capping it at $129,474. That decision was later reversed after voters opted to adjourn until April 30 for a final vote on the budget.

Tense from the start, the meeting featured a request from Theresa Tello to use paper ballots to ensure secrecy during voting. Even though paper ballots were not used, several expensive requests from fire and water department officials were denied.

At issue for voters was the apparent lack of a long-term financial plan. Fournier asked why a vote taken five years ago, which authorized the spending of $1.2 million to buy land for a new fire station, was reversed on Monday. Barrett said officials didn’t have time to finish their “due diligence.” Also, some stipulations were placed on the land that officials didn’t agree with.

Fournier said he favored a new fire station and was “baffled” why, after five years, seemingly no progress had been made.

“It seems odd to me, with interest rates historically low, that we had a project this size…and we didn’t do anything with it,” said Fournier. “That distresses me.”

Jane Donahue, a former Selectman agreed, saying the district had to plan better.

“People are sending a message,” said Donahue. “We need to be doing things the right way instead of helter skelter without a master plan.”

To send that message, voters shot down a $1.3 million fire department request for a new ladder truck, a $2.5 million water department request to replace water meter readers and a $25,000 request for firefighters' protective clothing.

Discussion on a $85,000 transfer to fund upgrades to the fire department’s communications system sparked one firefighter to make an impassioned plea for safety.

The request, which was approved, represents one-third of the cost of replacing wires with a wireless, microwave system for radio communication. The town’s police and EMS departments will ask for the remaining funds at the April 23 Town Meeting.

Acting Wareham Fire Chief Pat Haskell said the new system will add radio coverage in West Wareham and allow for uninterrupted communication. Haskell said that’s extremely important as radio calls have been dropped during emergencies in the past.

After voters questioned the need for the system, fire department Captain Matt Rowley spoke.

“When you start talking about my personal safety – and I am the boot on the ground, I am the person saving you – I am going to stand up,” said Rowley.

He said voters had the right to question the district finances, but asked them to consider the safety of individual firefighters.

“I want to go home at 08:00 hours to my family safely,” said Rowley. “Please don’t put those of us who are doing the job on the table for you. That’s not fair to us.”

The Wareham Fire District annual meeting will resume April 30 at 7 p.m. in the Wareham High School auditorium.

Comments (27)
Posted by: cranky pants | Apr 10, 2018 07:39

Lmao, that picture says it all..

 



Posted by: Peaches0409 | Apr 10, 2018 08:19

Let me preface this by saying anything that improves the safety (ie:the radio article) of our firefighters is kind of a no brainer for me. The problem is there is absolutely no transparency. We have a budget crisis in this town. We are closing schools and cutting in every department. I think it's shameful for the fire district to sit up there and ask for almost  4 million dollars for meters and a truck as well as raises that are through the roof! Ask for a 3% cost of living raise. An 8% raise for the Cheif, a 20% raise for the first assistant and a 12% raise for the second assistant.....are you kidding me? I also love how they said the truck that was voted for last year was a line item in the budget. Nope! Not there. Sharpen your pencils folks, the people have had enough.



Posted by: Zephyr | Apr 10, 2018 09:08

Before the meeting was over people should have insisted on paper ballots for the meeting on April 30.

Let's see if the next meeting gets 115 people or more.  I bet it will be less.



Posted by: Uns3529 | Apr 10, 2018 09:50

I'm okay with a 3% increase like the rest of the world gets but safety has to be first it is absolutely essential that we replace out-of-date gear and apparatus



Posted by: rhbinma | Apr 10, 2018 09:51

I have never been to a meeting before . And all I can say is wow.



Posted by: Swifts_Sheriff | Apr 10, 2018 10:28

People are acting surprised that the Bugles are asking for a raise .. .. it still blows my mind that they want all this modern equipment but still run dept like the Flintstones ...



Posted by: OnsetTogether | Apr 10, 2018 10:39

First sentence, my favorite word for 2018: transparency. You get more support when you explain fully and clearly. Bravo Wareham.



Posted by: Wareham By The Sea | Apr 10, 2018 10:55

Paper ballots are more accurate for both sides!

 

Prior to last night's meeting,  I presented various scenarios in my comments that warranted the privacy of a ballot.  I was speculating.  Although those scenarios did in fact come to fruition last night from my vantage point, it's still my opinion and can be challenged.

 

Paper ballots are more accurate for both sides!

 

I failed in my speculation to mention accuracy.  Nobody will argue that accuracy was a concern last night.  I was truly amazed at the disorganization and incompetence displayed during the simple counting of yellow cards!  I'm being professional in my wording.  If I wasn't I'd say it was akin to a circus.  How hard is it to count the correct votes?  They didn't even have the mechanical counters that I have seen at Town Meeting.  I have no faith that the counts were accurate.  A tally in a person's head is not something that I trust.

 

Paper ballots are more accurate for both sides!



Posted by: Rosebud | Apr 10, 2018 12:42

First question:  how did these people get such high salaries to begin with?  Second:  please tell how they arrived at such generous increases for themselves.  Firefighting is a dangerous job, but no one forced these people to choose this occupation.



Posted by: cranky pants | Apr 10, 2018 12:52

Their salaries became that high when the rest of us weren't voting. Thankfully we're stepping into the society where people are becoming more vigilant and aware of their surroundings.



Posted by: Swifts_Sheriff | Apr 10, 2018 15:38

Rosebud, I can explain how , they are comparing salaries from other departments.. I bet the places they are comparing do a lot more runs than Wareham. Hey do you blame them ? If you can get a nice pension pad all the power to them ...

You are correct nobody forced them into this profession..



Posted by: Wareham By The Sea | Apr 10, 2018 18:23

Where can I get a copy of the warrant with all the articles from last night?  I want to look at the budget items again.

 

At the meeting, I grabbed the Wareham Fire District - Warrant Special District Meeting with just 5 articles and I grabbed the Annual Report for fiscal July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017.  But I never got the main warrant with everything.

 

 

I couldn't find it on the Wareham Fire District Website.  Shouldn't it be readily available?  Does anyone know where I can get one?  Thanks

 

 



Posted by: NavyMan | Apr 10, 2018 18:42

This is so out of control. The pays they are requesting are more in line with cities. It is about time we have 1 Wareham fire dept. This 2 district system does nothing more that rape the tax payers. What a joke. Lets now stand up and rein these pirates in.



Posted by: felinesmom | Apr 10, 2018 19:20

WBTS--go to the Mar 22 e-edition of this paper.



Posted by: Wareham By The Sea | Apr 10, 2018 19:43

Thanks FELINESMOM!  That is exactly what I was looking for!   Last night had my head spinning so I'm taking some time to understand it.



Posted by: Duffman | Apr 10, 2018 20:59

They don't like the paper ballots because they know they'll lose. I plan to make sure I attend the next meeting to vote against all increases. This town has enough budget problems. I'm uninterested in funding another departments outrageous requests for more money.



Posted by: rhbinma | Apr 10, 2018 23:30

I will contact all the committee  members to find out what needs to be done to have paper ballots. Maybe more people would vote if we had paper ballots. I will update when I can find anything out.



Posted by: OnsetTogether | Apr 11, 2018 07:56

Just look at the increases given in Onset at the 2017 District Meeting to know why. The "Jonses" are in the same town in a 4 sq mi fire district. Double digit increases in salary pad retirement. Also examine the payouts for unused sick leave at retirement: earned at lower wage and paid out at the higher wage. Don't be fooled by "contractual" expenses that the voters haven't approved as funded contracts: until then they are just unfunded promises.



Posted by: rhbinma | Apr 11, 2018 10:14

This is the response I got from the clerk/treasurer of the district. 

Thank you for your interest in the voting process.  Any registered District voter present at a District Meeting has the right to call for a secret ballot.  The request must be made on the floor as each Article is presented.  The Moderator would then ask for a hand count of the voters and if the hand count passes with a simple majority a secret ballot for that Article would then take place.

 

This is what I asked.

I am writing has concerned Wareham voter. There seems to be some disconnect between the community and the district.  From boards I read people are scared to openly vote because they have friends in the district or are scared to vote out of fear a retribution. I would like to know how to get paper ballets done from this point forward. Your timely response is greatly  appreciated.

So has I see from there response they are not willing to do a paper ballet unless its brought up for each article.




Posted by: Wareham By The Sea | Apr 11, 2018 11:20

Rhbinma - that's the procedure.  One walks to the mic and requests a secret ballot.  Then it requires a hand count for approval.  How's that supposed to work?What came first, the chicken or the egg?  The stacked audience will vote it down and make those that vote for it feel uncomfortable.  It's a flawed system!



Posted by: rhbinma | Apr 11, 2018 12:25

Wareham by the sea- I agree 100% I am not sure how we can make it a paper ballet moving forward.Does it have to become a by-law ? I am not getting straight answers from the powers to be. I am willing to do some leg work to get this done. If someone knows a route to go I am open to it. I for one am sick of being taxed to death. I have lived here 10 yrs and my taxes have doubled in that time. Now it will be the water.

If someone wants to discuss it privately they can email me rhbinma@hotmail.com



Posted by: cranky pants | Apr 11, 2018 12:40

How about a bylaw for the bylaw bandits...

No more voting on big ticket items over Monday  or Tuesday coffee shop meetings. While we're at it how about only voting when our seasonal and summer residents are here ?

Makes far too much sense doesn't it ?

Thankfully with the recent news of embezzlement from the state police troop E many more people are becoming aware to the blind spending going on around us. Time to start holding feet to the fire so to speak.



Posted by: Wareham By The Sea | Apr 11, 2018 12:49

Rhbinma - Jamie from Wareham Week posted a comment to the other Fire District Article.  WW is looking into how other towns do it.  The key is keeping the ball rolling.  The paper ballot topic has generated some interest and appears to be gaining momentum .



Posted by: rhbinma | Apr 11, 2018 13:32

Sounds great and LMAO atthe by-law bandits



Posted by: felinesmom | Apr 11, 2018 14:22

Where are the by-laws for the Wareham Fire/Water District posted?  The first step would be to read them to see if what the clerk stated about paper ballot procedure is written down or if that is "just the way it has always been done".  Usually in by-laws there is a section that gives directions for amending them. 



Posted by: Andrea Smith | Apr 11, 2018 14:29

Other fire districts which like Wareham and Onset are separate from their town governments, might be a possible source of information about voting by paper ballot. Barnstable has five Fire Districts. Perhaps One of the Barnstable Fire Districts would be able to provide a state-wide list of Fire Districts for anyone interested in preliminary research.

 

http://www.town.barnstable.ma.us/TownHall/firedepartments.asp



Posted by: cranky pants | Apr 12, 2018 07:36

This should really raise a red flag with many people. Take it at face value, they didn't have answers because they totally weren't prepared to have the community show up and have an opinion. It was expected to be a clean hands push with high fives and many thanks to the cronies.

Thankfully for us normal taxpayers that wasn't the case. Once again the village used it's voice. It's becoming trendy to buck the system and question authority.



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