Falmouth firefighters Anthony Poquette and Sarai Briggs train last week in rescuing a victim pinned by a heavy object. Chance Viles / The Forecaster

Falmouth residents will see their property tax rate rise by $1.64 over the next five years as the result of the new full-time fire department and the planned expansion of the Main Street station.

The tax rate increase for 2021-2022 from the fire department alone, excluding any increases resulting from school, municipal or county budgets, will be 33 cents, adding $165 to the tax bill of an owner of a $500,000 home. At the end of five years, that same homeowner will be taxed $18.69 per $1,000 of assessed value for the fire department, up from the town tax rate of $17.05 now, or about $820 total.

Lt. Nick Hutchins trains Falmouth resident Janna Braley, training to be an EMT, in an air bag system used to free people pinned by heavy objects. Braley plans to attend all fire department training, including those specific to firefighters, the chief said. Chance Viles / The Forecaster

“I think this is going to get tiring for residents, three years out seeing every year with an increase of 15 to 40 cents, but the answer to that concern or question will always be that we are transitioning to a full-time department,” Town Manager Nathan Poore said.

Fourteen new firefighters have been trained and are on the job, and additional members will be phased in over the next few years.  The new members of the department cost the town around $4 million.

“The cost of each new full-time member is approximately $100,000,” Fire Chief Howard Rice said, noting that amount varies based on years of experience, rank and benefits.  “We have to outfit them with gear, radios, pagers, uniforms, train them, etc. ”

The Town Council is working now on the 2021-2022 town budget, with a public hearing scheduled for April 7.

Residents would have seen the fire department impact in their tax bills this year, but in light of the pandemic, the town cut a number of positions and capital projects in the 2020-2021 municipal budget to reduce the proposed rate increase from 46 cents to 15 cents.

Without the new department, the tax rate would have decreased about 10 cents, Poore said.

Taxes also will be impacted in fiscal years 2023 and 2024 by the expansion of the Main Street fire station to accommodate the extra staff, totaling around $560,000.

Rice said the department has run out of room for new employees. Half of the training area has been turned into makeshift offices separated with cubicle walls and former offices now bunk rooms. One bunk did not even fit at headquarters on Main St. and was added to the West Falmouth station.

“We’ve done really well with the space we have, but we are just full,” Rice said.

The addition of more firefighters, at a cost of $1.4 million, is planned for fiscal year 2025.

I then foresee mil rate stability after this period,” Poore said.

The Town Council approved the full-time department along with the budget in spring 2020, and since August last year, the new members have been keeping the department consistently staffed at all hours, which the town was struggling to do with volunteers.

Rice said response times are now faster, too.

Since Engine 2 went from volunteer to staff, its response time went from 10.4 minutes to 5.7 minutes, a reduction of 4.7 minutes, or 45%, he said.

“In December a guy wasn’t breathing, six people here responded in minutes. He was dead in his home and now brings us bagels every week” Rice said.

Rice said that in cases of health emergencies, the five-minute difference could be life or death.

“The level of service since August when they went out has gone up exponentially,” Rice said.

Volunteers will continue to be an important part of the team, Rice said, but the numbers have decreased nationwide for a couple of reasons. Employers often do not allow the volunteers to respond to calls during work hours and the social aspect of call companies has waned, he said.

“We had a fire a few weeks ago, we had seven call members show up. Back in 2011 when we started tracking we had 40 show up,” he said. “Our most active call members are also older, some are 55-56. I don’t see them doing it for 10 more years.”

Still, he said, call members “help us greatly.”

Even college kids who joined for a few years, they are a part of a legacy that’s gotten us to where we are today,” Rice said.

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