Voters OK full-time fire chief for Wilton

WILTON – Voters at March 12’s town meeting approved hiring a full-time fire chief, buying a new sidewalk plow, okayed an improved “Welcome to Wilton” sign for Route 101, and adopted an operating budget of $5,063,388. Also approved were $240,000 for new Self-contained Breathing Apparatus (air packs) for the Fire Department and $15,000 for upgrading the department’s pagers.

Voters approved everything on the warrant except authorizing the Select Board to negotiate a new lease with Quinn Brothers Corp. for land off Route 31 south.

About 120 residents attended the five-hour meeting in the Florence Rideout Elementary School gym. William Keefe is the moderator.

The operating budget is an increase of $174,000 or 3.56 percent. A second person was added to the finance department, and there were increases in cemeteries, health benefits, and police retirement.

Discussion of the fire chief’s position was long, sometimes heated, and often emotional.

The final vote was 62 yes and 51 no.

Selectman Kermit Williams was the only Selectman who supported the position. The Budget Committee was also split in their support, three for, one against and two abstaining. The main objection was the cost. The article asked for $50,000 for “a partial year of salary and benefits.” A full year, under a “worse case scenario” would be around $110,000.

Williams said the chief’s job had become more involved, and the chief had more responsibilities. “It’s a big job and asking a volunteer gets harder.”

Fire Chief Don Nourse, who has been with the department about 40 years, said what should be a 33-member department is down to 20. All of them work out of town and response to a call in the daytime can be only a handful. He noted the required training – 240 hours for a level one. The department also makes inspections, checks smoke alarms, issues burn permits, and supports all town celebrations.

The department was founded in 1875, Nourse said, “after Main Street burned down,” and has served the town ever since. Shortage of volunteers is a regional problem, not just Wilton.

An attempt to change the article to a part-time chief was defeated 64-45.

Select Board member Kellie-Sue Boissonnault said the town couldn’t afford the position. “It will be a continual cost.”

Resident Tom Schultz said, “Eventually we’ll have a tragedy. We’re operating on a thin line, putting our volunteers at risk.”

The sidewalk plow purchase was also debated. Road Agent Brian Adams said the current plow was “a 1984 and we spent $16,000 to keep it going.”

The specialized machine is also used for mowing the town’s athletic fields and along narrow road shoulders. He said he didn’t know “how many miles of sidewalks the town has” but the whole downtown area does. Many older students walk to school.

The arrangement with Quinn Brothers dates to 2004 when a 15-year lease was signed. Two years ago, the lease was extended while a new one was negotiated, and repeated last year without a resolution. The area is within the Well Head Protection area and the Aquifer Protection area. It will now have to be reclaimed. At issue was payment of taxes and if the town would acquire the property for wellhead protection.

Using the existing Lions Club sign at the Island Street exit off Route 101 for a “Welcome to Wilton” sign was approved last year after the state DOT said no new signs could be placed on Route 101. It was not used when Boissonnault argued that taxpayer money could not be used for a private purpose. The sign will be a joint venture.

Voters also approved extending leases on a dump truck and a police cruiser, and adding $350,000 to the Bridges Capital Reserve Fund. Design and replacement of the Stage Coach Road Bridge will cost $750,000 with the state covering $600,000. The work is to be completed by 2014. Work will continue on both the King Brook and Old County Farm Road bridges.

The town treasurer’s stipend was increased by $450, to $1200, and $100 appropriated for the deputy. The increase was to bring the stipend “into accord with other towns.”

A space needs study for a new town garage will cost $10,275, and $64,725 was added to the Public Works Garage Replacement Capital Reserve Fund.

Selectmen said a plan to spend $30,000 for “stone and gravel to be placed on unpaved roads” was devised after numerous complaints during last year’s unusually bad “mud season.” It was to be a one-time expenditure as the operating budget contains a line for gravel.

Two non-binding petition articles were adopted without comment. One asks for government support of carbon-free legislation and the other that political district maps be redrawn so as not to benefit wither party.

Long time Budget Committee Member Joyce Fisk was not present. She will be honored by the committee at their next meeting for her many years of service.

The meeting adjourned about 11:30 p.m.