The New Gloucester Board of Selectmen has reversed course, agreeing to increase a fire department stipend after setting a self-imposed guideline last fall not to increase stipends this budget cycle.

In his annual budget request, Gary Sacco, chief of the New Gloucester Fire & Rescue Department, requested additional money in order to increase the pay for fire and rescue department training sessions and monthly meetings during which personnel also perform truck inspections. While rescue department personnel receive $10 payments for their meetings and $15 for training sessions, fire department personnel receive $10 payments for both. Sacco requested money to increase the payments to $15 across the board for both fire and rescue personnel.

Yet, in their initial budget proceedings, the selectmen only approved the increase for rescue department staff, angering members of the fire department, who believe the $10 payments for trainings and meetings is too low. Sacco’s request for a $5,060 increase in the fire department stipend was rejected. At a budget committee hearing on March 24, 10 members of the fire department showed up to call on the board to restore the additional $5,060 in Sacco’s fire department stipend request.

The show of force appears to have persuaded the budget committee and the selectmen to reverse course. On March 30, the selectmen voted to approve a warrant article that includes Sacco’s full fire department stipend request.

“The selectmen, the budget committee, the manager, and the fire chief are all in agreement,” said Selectmen Steve Libby, the board’s chairman.

According to Town Manager Paul First, the selectmen voted not to increase stipends in its budget guidelines last fall. The reversal comes following “discussion and additional information,” First said. Selectman Josh McHenry, who voted against the guideline, said he interpreted the vote as an affront to the fire and rescue department.

“I thought that the selectmen setting budget guidance that had no increase in stipends was directed pretty much directly at our fire and rescue department because they’re the biggest stipend department,” McHenry said.

To Libby, McHenry’s characterization of the budget guidelines vote is too narrow.

“That’s his opinion,” Libby said. “The budget criteria applied to all accounts and all departments.”

At the March 24 budget committee hearing, Capt. Ryan Mitchell, who has worked for the department for 10 years, asked the committee about the level and quality of service expected from the fire department.

“What we need to ask ourselves is what kind of fire department do we want?” he said. “Do we want a department that struggles to attract and retain firefighters? Do you want a department that can’t get enough people to respond to emergencies? Do you want a department that responds but doesn’t know what they are doing? I would hope the answer to all of those questions is no.”

According to Sacco, firefighters receive a flat payment between $8.50 and $11.50 – depending on the level of experience – for on-call pay. At the hearing, Mitchell called for hourly wages instead of one-time payments.

“We aren’t looking to get rich but we are asking that we be fairly compensated for our time and our professionalism like our peers in our surrounding communities,” Mitchell said. “The first step will be to be approve the increase in meeting and training pay this year that the chief has requested in his budget. The next step will be to discuss hourly compensation moving forward. All I ask is that you let the people decide for themselves at town meeting the type of funding they want to provide their firefighters.”

Capt Scott Doyle, who has served on the department for 19 years, also believes that it’s time to move toward hourly wages.

“I think firefighters are asked to risk their lives when responding to calls and performing duties and to get paid $8 as a flat rate whether the call is for 10 minutes or for 10 hours – that’s just a lot to ask for in 2015,” Doyle said.

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