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3/20/2013 2:00:00 PM
Alna Approves Fire Officer Raises
Alna's annual town meeting brought a full house to the fire station March 16. (J.W. Oliver photo)
Alna's annual town meeting brought a full house to the fire station March 16. (J.W. Oliver photo)
By J.W. Oliver

After considerable debate and two failed amendments, Alna residents voted to grant pay increases to all fire department officers, at annual town meeting March 16.

The vote doubles all stipends. The fire chief stipend increases from $1500-$3000, the assistant chief and emergency medical services director stipends from $1000-$2000 and the three captains' stipends from $250-$500.

The raises will cost the town $4250 per year.

Fire Chief Mike Trask, in response to a question from a resident, said Alna pays its fire officers far less than other towns in the area and towns of similar size around the state.

The chief and assistant chief have not received a raise in 14 years, despite increases in the number of hours necessary to comply with regulations, Trask said. He works about 5-8 hours per week, he said.

The $1500 stipend, thus, would compensate the chief at a rate of $3.61-$5.77 per hour.

Second Selectman Jonathan Villeneuve and Third Selectman David Reingardt spoke against the raises, as did resident Steve Sheehy.

"I think to come in and expect to get double the pay as well as some of the other increases when the sign on the door says 'volunteer fire department,' I think is unreasonable," Sheehy said.

Villeneuve said the town pays almost all its officers less than minimum wage and still manages to find people willing to serve the town. He moved to amend the warrant article to keep the stipends at 2012 levels.

Assistant Fire Chief Roger Whitney held up a thick binder, the manual the department follows to ensure compliance with fire safety regulations, during a speech about changes in the fire service.

The manual did not exist 14 years ago, Whitney said.

"We have to come up to the exact same standards as Bangor, Portland, South Portland... [The manual contains] 60 chapters that Mike and I have to make sure we administer," he said.

The 60 chapters include 10 new chapters just this year, he said.

"It's a huge burden," Whitney said. "Yes, we do it. Yes, we will do it if you don't pass our salaries, of course we will, because the Alna Volunteer Fire Department is really a dedicated bunch of people."

Firefighter Ed Thelander said he joined the department after moving to the town two years ago.

"I don't want their job," he said of the officers, "because I leave and these guys stay" after fire calls and meetings to fill out paperwork and fulfill other responsibilities.

"I don't know how it's all done," Thelander said. "It is way too much stuff, it's so much time, and I pay $500 a month to live here in taxes and I'm alright with that."

Les Fossel, a former selectman and assistant fire chief, said he sometimes disagrees with Trask about fire department matters. "On this one, the fire department's right," Fossel said. "I think we should vote this money."

Reingardt, the third selectman, said he believes the town should give the officers raises, but he does not think it should give 100 percent raises. He said the selectmen should develop a pay schedule for all town officers.

Alna has the highest tax rate in the county, Reingardt said. "You have people who are paying $1000 a month and they don't want to complain because they can afford it, but you have people paying $200 a month who can't afford it," he said.

"I administer general assistance and I think it's getting harder for everybody," he said.

One resident said, instead of thinking about it as a 100 percent increase in one year, the town should think about it as a 100 percent increase over 14 years.

Villeneuve's amendment failed, with about 3-4 no votes for every yes vote.

Another resident then moved to give the officers 50 percent raises.

The second amendment garnered more support, but failed by a vote of 24-16.

The original article ultimately passed with all raises intact and just a few no votes.

The residents only voted against one article, a measure to use $25,000 in surplus highway funds to establish a reserve account for future road projects.

Some residents said they would prefer to apply the $25,000 to the balance of a $522,000 loan for a 2011 roads project.

Moderator Chris Cooper said he did not think it would be legal to amend the article to do so. The selectmen said they would consider a special town meeting later in the year to use the $25,000 to pay down the principal of the loan. For now, the funds will stay in the highway account.

The residents otherwise approved the town budget and miscellaneous other items with little debate. The budget totals $610,026, a decrease of $3976 or 0.65 percent from last year's budget.

Highlights include loan payments of $63,600 and $31,875 for the 2011 roads project and 2009 fire station project; a $62,721 fire department budget, a decrease of $808 or 1.27 percent; $7000 to repair or replace the meetinghouse roof; a $4254 payment to the Wiscasset Parks and Recreation Department, which will make residents eligible for discounts on memberships and services; and a $1 per hour raise for firefighters, from $11 to $12.

Town officials said the town will actually pay less on the fire station loan because Treasurer Honora Perkins negotiated a more favorable interest rate.

The meeting also re-elected Cemetery Trustee Jim Bruce for another three-year term.

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