SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Town Manager Don Lagrange told selectmen last week that he believes the town would benefit from having a full-time fire chief.
Lagrange made the statement at a June 13 meeting of the Board of Selectmen, explaining that meeting the regulations for running a fire department and the training needed for firefighters have grown beyond what a volunteer chief can handle.
“I think you need to pay the price,” Lagrange said.
Selectman George Jellison noted the cost of such a move.
“It’s a $70,000, $80,000 decision,” he said.
As such, hiring a full-time chief could nearly double the fire department budget – voters in May approved a nearly $82,000 budget for the department for the 2017-2018 fiscal year.
Going to a full-time fire chief would require a change to the town’s fire department ordinance, according to Lagrange. A proposed amendment could go before voters at the November elections, and if approved, the position could be included in the budget for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, he explained.
“I just see a deficiency growing,” Lagrange said. “We need someone full-time to ensure adequate staffing.”
Bar Harbor and Mount Desert are the only Mount Desert Island towns with full-time fire chiefs. Southwest Harbor’s chief, Jack Martel, is to be paid an $8,500 stipend for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Selectmen in January increased the stipend after Martel successfully made a case for the raise, pointing out that he is employed seasonally and during the slack winter months puts in considerable hours working on fire department matters.
Selectman Chad Terry suggested merging with the Tremont Fire Department, which also has a part-time chief.
“Get them on board possibly to share the cost,” he said.
Chairman Tom Benson acknowledged that the two departments work “pretty closely now.”
After discussion, selectmen asked Lagrange to talk with other fire chiefs on the island to get their opinion on hiring a full-time chief and the possibility of combining services and bring the information to the board at a future meeting.
Martel, who joined the department in 1976, said this week he only recently learned of Lagrange’s proposal. A full-time chief is something members of the fire department have discussed, he said.
“There are so many things that have to be done,” he said, referring to the reporting requirements and other paperwork that goes along with the job.
Martel acknowledged that balancing his paid employment with his duties as fire chief is not the best situation. He can leave work for emergencies and can take the occasional hour or two off when necessary, but, he said, “It does make it harder with me working.”
The Southwest Harbor Fire Department has about 20 active members, Martel said.
Chief Mike Bender of the Mount Desert Fire Department is paid $68,981 annually and entitled to the same health insurance and other benefits as other town employees, according to Mount Desert Town Manager Durlin Lunt. The fire department has three other full-time employees.
In Bar Harbor, Chief Matt Bartlett supervises nine full-time firefighters, who also are emergency medical technicians. Bartlett is paid $84,567 a year plus benefits.