Brookline residents vote to repair historic Annex but reject full-time fire chief

BROOKLINE – Voters approved spending money to repair the old ambulance/fire station building on Main Street known as the Annex and to complete an ongoing sidewalk construction project, but rejected the article that would have created a full-time fire chief position during the Town Meeting on March 12. Articles for road repairs and the creation of a contingency fund also were defeated.

“To me, the Annex is Brookline in a building,” said Selectman Brendan Denehy. “If you think about how we have done things over the years, we did recycling before it was in. It was an old bakery that we turned into a fire station, police department and ambulance bay, until the fire trucks and ambulances got so big they no longer fit. It was a food pantry and is library storage. It shows our history of making do, reusing, and the work our volunteers do.”

The $31,600 article covered a new roof, mold remediation, new exterior trim, painting the exterior, draining the oil tank, electricity and insurance.

“If it was just about the past, I’d say get rid of it, but it has a past, present and future,” Denehy said.

Darrel Philpot, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, spoke against the article, voicing his concern that the repairs would only temporarily fix the problem and that future leaks would still occur, leading to more repairs.

In the end, the majority ruled and the funds for repairs were approved. A competing article, for $14,600 to raze the Annex, was passed over.

The other main issue at the meeting was whether to create and fund a position for a full-time fire chief. The current chief, Charles Corey Jr., is a volunteer. Article 8 sought $75,500 in salary and benefits for the remaining eight months in 2014.

Firefighter Peter Bretschneider began the discussion by asking the crowd several questions.

“Assume all of you were qualified to be a fire chief: How many of you could volunteer to be fire chief? What if Charlie were to step down? Who would be chief?”

He presented data regarding the upward trend in the number of calls to which the Brookline Fire Department responds, as well as how neighboring communities are staffed. His recommendation was to start at the top with a full-time chief and eventually add more staff.

Some residents questioned to whom the chief would report and whether the salary was appropriate; others expressed concern over the still-to-be-determined cooperative school board portion that makes up a large portion of the tax bill.

“I think everybody here supports the Fire Department and their hard work,” said resident Ron Olsen, “but I’m not in favor of this. There is a big elephant down the street: the co-op. We need to figure out how to pay for that. As much as I appreciate it, I’m not ready for this now.”

“I look at this as no different than needing a new fire truck,” said Selectman Karl Dowling, who favored the article. “We have elected fire wardens, and they have told us we need it.”

After a secret ballot, the article was defeated by a vote of 107-98.

Cindy Gorgoglione attempted to bring back the issue for reconsideration later in the evening, but her motion to reconsider was defeated.

With minimal discussion, the $4.04 million operating budget was passed.

Construction of sidewalks already has begun on Milford Street, but due to poor weather, the funds from 2010 lapsed before the final phase from Austin Road to the Safety Complex could be completed. Article 10 will appropriate $215,000 for the final phase, with $172,000 from a Federal Transportation Enhancement Grant and $58,000 raised through taxation.

Voters were less receptive to road agent Jerry Farwell’s explanation of Article 9, to raise $60,000 to finish paving Hood Road, and rejected the article.

Every vote counts

There was quite a bit of discussion of Article 11, to establish a contingency fund for unanticipated expenses, and to appropriate $7,500.

Questions arose where the money would come from if there was no surplus fund to draw from and the article was amended to include the words “up to” the $7,500.

Marie Liberty voiced her objection to the contingency fund.

“If you don’t have the money, you don’t do it,” she said. “This is what we do at home. I have had to do a lot of cutting lately, and I don’t think we need this.”

Because the show of hands was too close to call, Moderator Peter Webb called on his counters for help. The motion was defeated by a single vote, with a count of 59-60.

Routine articles

Articles 13 through 16 covered routine items such as transferring funds from one account to another, accepting donations for perpetual cemetery care, and modifying the property tax exemption allowed for elderly or disabled to realign it with the change in property valuations.

Constitutional amendment

The last item discussed was Article 19, a petition to ask Congress to move forward a constitutional amendment regulating political spending and clarifying that rights apply to people and not corporations.

Several residents spoke in favor, while one woman said she would vote against the article because she didn’t think it was fair for the majority of those still in attendance to speak for the entire community. In the end, the petition was defeated 45-55.