The ranks of Biddeford firefighting and EMS personnel will increase by two in July and by four more in January as a result of the passage of the municipal budget. Proponents of the move said the department, which handles an estimated 5,300 calls annually, has needed additional personnel for years. Alan Bennett/Journal Tribune file photo

BIDDEFORD —The city of Biddeford’s fire and emergency medical personnel respond to about 5,300 calls annually.

Soon they’ll be able to answer calls in a way that is safer for residents and safer for them as well, said Fire Chief Scott Gagne, with the authorization to hire two additional personnel at the start of the new fiscal year July 1 and four more beginning in January 2022.

The new firefighter – emergency medical services personnel are included in the municipal budget approved by the City Council June 15.

“We’re extremely grateful,” said Gagne. The addition of six additional people at the department will mean better safety “all the way around,” he said

Once all six positions are filled, it will bring each shift up from 10 people to 12 at full staffing levels. About 86 percent of the year, Gagne said, the department operates at minimum staffing of eight people per shift due to vacations, sick time, training, and long-term injury or illness. Once all six additional people are in place, minimum staffing will be at 10.

With passage of the budget, Biddeford’s property tax rate, or mil rate, is poised to decrease this fiscal year by 7 cents but the rate itself could come in lower still when the city’s revaluation is complete, say city officials.

Still, that won’t change the amount to be collected through property tax to fund the $35 million municipal budget, and the $40 million school budget.

The municipal budget is offset by an estimated $13.8 million in revenues, including $8.9 million in non-property tax revenues, $3.1 million in state revenue sharing, $1.1 million in Homestead reimbursements, about $398,000 in business and equipment tax, and $300,000 from the city’s surplus, leaving about $26.2 million to be raised through property taxes.

The school budget is offset by about $17.1 million in revenues, including $14.5 million in the state’s allocation to education. That leaves about $22 million to be raised through taxation.

Biddeford’s current property tax rate is $20.05; the effect of this year’s budgets would decrease that to $19.98, but for the revaluation.

The property tax rate is determined by the amount of money needed to fund municipal services and schools divided by the total assessed value of property in the community, including new properties added since the previous year.

The budget for the coming year had contained two new firefighter positions; Councilor Norman Belanger made the motion to add four more, starting in January, which added $182,000 to the budget.

“We’re in a position now we can do so without increasing the mil rate, there would still be a decrease with this change,” said Belanger. “This is a public safety issue.”

Councilor William Emhiser said better response times for the fire department emergency medical personnel is needed in the coastal region. He pointed out the coastal areas of Biddeford represent 27 percent of the tax base.

“Hopefully this will begin an honest discussion about a remote station,” Emhiser said.

Gagne on Monday said the response time to coastal regions from central station is 10 to 14 minutes, depending on which area of the coast the call originates.

“We want to be able to give citizens throughout the city the same level of service,” said Gagne.

Council President John McCurry said he would vote against the measure to add four additional firefighters. He said he was sure other departments could say they also need more personnel.

“(The request) comes every year with an earnest plea from the chief that he cannot keep people safe,” said Councilor Amy Clearwater. “I believe if the police chief came here and said he can’t keep people safe, he would have had his people a long time ago. The circumstances are such that I support the motion.”

“We should have been filling these positions 10 to 15 years ago,” said Councilor Michael Ready.

“I completely support this, it’s way overdue,” said Mayor Alan Casavant.

The vote to approve was 5 to 3, with Councilors McCurry, Stephen St. Cyr and Marc Lessard opposed. Councilors Clearwater, Belanger, Emhiser, Ready and Doris Ortiz voted in favor in favor. Councilor Ashanti Williams, who was sworn in that evening, abstained.

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