WINDHAM – Town councilors clashed Tuesday night over budget recommendations to cut the deputy fire chief’s position and eliminate emergency dispatchers’ jobs in favor of joining a regional dispatch operation.

The council’s finance committee presented its final recommendations on the 2010-11 municipal budget at a workshop Tuesday and drew sharp criticism from some councilors.

The proposals to cut the deputy fire chief’s position and eliminate the town’s dispatch center and contract with the Cumberland County Regional Communications Center sparked intense debate.

Councilor Carol Waig, who worked for the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, objected fiercely to merging the town’s dispatch service into the regional operation. Waig said she is concerned about the safety of the officers and losing local control.

“I’m adamant that I’m not going to vote for county,” Waig said. “I have worked at county and seen the ins and outs.”

Town Manager Tony Plante proposed the change in April to help close an estimated $1 million budget shortfall. He says the change would save the town $135,551 in the year that starts July 1.

County officials have said they would hire displaced dispatchers who are qualified for the job.

The finance committee also affirmed Plante’s proposal to cut Deputy Fire Chief John Wescott, who does fire inspections and reviews site plans for new developments. The position was created eight years ago.

“That’s my hot button,” said Councilor Donna Chapman at the start of a half-hour discussion on the proposal.

Chapman questioned who would pick up the slack if Wescott’s job were eliminated.

She asked Fire Chief Charles Hammond who would take command of a fire or rescue scene if he were not on duty. He said there is almost always another ranking officer on duty.

“I think it will be catastrophic to add more stress to you, Charlie,” Chapman said. “You can’t do the job of both positions.”

Councilor John MacKinnon, who serves on the finance committee, made a motion during a previous meeting to restore Wescott’s job to the budget, but the proposal was defeated.

“The need is still there,” MacKinnon said. “All the administrative duties are being handled by the deputy. I don’t think the fire code would have been written if it wasn’t for the deputy.”

Matthew Noel, vice chairman of the council, who also serves on the finance committee, expressed confidence in Hammond.

“He has the experience of understanding what the priorities are,” Noel said. “He has very talented individuals working for him and this community. They will step up. They will cover the bases.”

Chapman she won’t vote for a budget that would cut Wescott’s position.

“We are going to have public backlash and I don’t blame them,” she said. “I would rather see the assistant planner position gone.”

Town Manager Tony Plante said in March the projected budget must be cut to about $13.4 million.

He presented a plan to increase the property tax rate by about 4 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. Windham’s 2009-10 tax rate is $11.75.

A public hearing on the budget will be held at 7 p.m. May 25 at Town Hall. Councilors will vote on the budget that night. Then, residents will decide whether to approve the budget at town meeting June 12.

 

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at: [email protected]