WINDHAM — Town councilors decided late Tuesday night to restore funding in the municipal budget for the deputy fire chief’s position, but decided not to maintain the town’s emergency dispatch operation.

Councilors listened to roughly two hours of testimony at a public hearing on proposed cuts to the $13.8 million budget for the year starting July 1. The discussion centered on proposals to cut the deputy fire chief and move the town’s dispatch operation to the Cumberland County Regional Communications Center.

Councilor John MacKinnon, who serves on the council’s finance committee, drafted the amendments to restore the funding.
John Wescott, the deputy fire chief, was the first to speak at the hearing.

“I would suggest that we add this position back to the budget,” he said. “There are six full-timers (in the department). It doesn’t make sense to let one go with a town of 17,000 that swells to 30,000 in the summer.”

Shane Taylor, a full-time firefighter and paramedic, said, “I implore you to look beyond the ledgers and the tax rolls … and see with clarity that this is not a position, nor an individual this town can afford to do without.”

Before the public hearing, Gary Bickford, a firefighter/EMT, held a sign outside Town Hall that said, “Don’t Cut Public Safety.” He came to the hearing to lend support for Wescott.

“It’s a safety issue,” Bickford said. “As a firefighter, being in a burning building, I like to know that there is more than one ranking officer outside looking out for me.”

Windham police turned out in large numbers to support the current dispatch operation.

Ernest MacVane, a police officer, told the council that dispatchers are more than a line item in the budget. He said they are people with families who depend on them. He pointed to dispatchers in the crowd, and they stood after he called their names.

“As a police officer, I depend on my dispatchers to know where I am, what I am doing and, at times, even know what I am thinking,” MacVane said. “My dispatchers can tell by the tone in my voice what is happening at the end of my radio. … By taking the cog out of the wheel, the end product will be poor community service, and our citizens deserve more than that.”

Residents have sharply criticized over the proposed budget cuts, intended to help close a $1 million budget shortfall.

Going into Tuesday’s hearing, the proposed municipal budget totaled $13,776,208, a decrease of $73,412 from the 2009-10 budget. It would add about 1.6 percent to the current property tax rate of $11.75 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The proposed Regional School Unit 14 budget is $36,943,642. If it’s approved by the school board and voters, the tax rate would increase another 40 cents, said Town Manager Tony Plante.

Another cent will be added to the tax rate for the county assessment, which is $1,018,613.

Windham voters will have the final say on the budget at town meeting, starting at 10 a.m. June 12 at the Community Center on School Road.

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