Town Meeting Vote Means South Fire Station Will Be Open Full-Time ... Maybe
Amendment on the floor of Town Meeting adds $302,000 to Fire Department overtime budget.
Anyone wondering about the power wielded by citizens at an Open Town Meeting got a first-hand civics lesson Monday night at Tewksbury High School.
Acting on an amendment brought forth by Democratic Committee Chairman Warren Carey, residents voted 65-62 to add $302,000 to the overtime budget of the Fire Department which, in theory, would provide the department with the staffing needed to keep the South Fire Station open 24 hours a day, year-round.
The money will be transferred from the town's certified free cash, money that had been earmarked toward the purchase of an Elgin sweeper for the DPW and paying off the town's long-term leases on various pieces of equipment. As a result of the vote, Town Manager Richard Montuori said the purchase would be scrapped for now and only next year's leases would be paid off.
Carey's proposed amendment was proposed during debate over the Public Safety section of the budget and came as a shock to most of the roughly 130 residents in attendance on Day 1 of the Annual Town Meeting. Most surprised may have been Fire Chief Mike Hazel who said he could not guarantee that the money transfer would mean South Station would be opened full-time.
"The budget is still fluid. There's nothing I can say that's cast in stone," said Hazel. "Certainly any money helps. It's a matter of seeing where money is placed."
Hazel said he will know more once the state finalizes its budget and official state aid figures are released.
Carey, who does not live in South Tewksbury, said he was proposing the amendment on behalf of the people in that neighborhood.
"If they wont get up to speak about it, I will. Getting rid of the leases is important but its not more important that keeping the fire department open. Our priorities are topsy-turvy here," said Carey, adding that it was up to the residents to decide what their priorities were.
"I'm going to use this as a straw poll," he said. "If you don’t vote to keep the fire station open then I don’t give a crap anymore. Close the stations."
Several residents rose to speak in favor of Carey's amendment, including Joan Dunlevy and Rick O'Neil. Dunlevy spoke about a fire in South Tewksbury that claimed the lives of a mother and her children, years before the South Station had been built and the need to avoid such tragedies in the future.
"We are talking about putting people in peril that is not accepted in any other part of this community," added O'Neil.
Montuori and Finance Committee Chairman Robert Cook spoke in opposition to the amendment. Both men expressed a desire to see the South Station open full time again but said that the budget presented, as is, was an important step in improving the long-term fiscal health of the community.
"I would ask town meeting to stick to the plan, stick to what has been brought forward," said Montuori.
Resident Malcolm Nichols also spoke against the amendment, saying he supported the fiscal responsibility of the budget as presented.
"I see this town spending money it doesn’t have over and over and over," said Nichols. "We just gotta stop."
At first, Carey's amendment was defeated in a standing count, 58-56. However, a short time later, Carey moved that his amendment be reconsidered under procedural error, as the "checkers" who were checking in voters in the cafeteria area, had not been notified that a standing vote was being taken, giving them the chance to come to the auditorium to be counted.
Town Moderator Keith Rauseo acknowledged and apologized for the error and voters approved the reconsideration.
After further debate, Carey's amendment passed, 65-62.
Montuori, showing the ability to adapt on the fly, made some quick adjustments to the free cash section of the budget in the form of his own amendment, which voters approved. A short time later, voters approved the entire $86 million municipal budget.