Business & Economy

Bennington charter group favors option of paid firefighters

BENNINGTON — Bennington’s Charter Review Committee voted Wednesday in favor of allowing the Selectboard the option to form a partly paid fire department.

The current government charter, under a section identifying the powers of the board, authorizes it to organize or reorganize the Bennington Fire Department, but also specifies that “such department shall be a volunteer fire department.”

Bennington Fire Department
The Bennington fire station. Courtesy photo
Committee member Robert Ebert said he was not comfortable with that provision, because it prevents the board from organizing a partly paid department that might include personnel who are not volunteers. That option should be available without requiring a charter change, he said, if a situation arises in which paid personnel become necessary.

Co-Chair Sean-Marie Oller said she wasn’t necessarily opposed to the move but said it might seem “a huge change” to some members of the volunteer fire company and might require “a lot of explaining” during public hearings on the proposed charter revisions.

The seven-member committee was appointed by the Selectboard to review the 26-page document for possible changes, either to the language or the substance of the governing provisions.

Town Manager Stuart Hurd, who is not a committee member but was invited to attend the group’s meetings, said there has in fact been “discussion of whether we should pay the (fire) chief.”

He said the town already provides paid clerical assistance for the chief, as increasing state reporting requirements have made demands on the time of the elected volunteer department leader. Hurd said he believes those types of reporting responsibilities will continue to increase.

Committee members Jonathan Cohen and co-Chair Robert Plunkett cited a desire to seek input from members of the Fire Department before voting to recommend the change. But the group eventually approved that revision and other language changes in the section on Selectboard powers.

Members said it is understood there will be at least two public hearings on their report, and that any revisions would require approval by the board and ultimately through a townwide vote, probably during the March annual meeting.

The committee decided to change the wording to allow organization of a “volunteer or paid” department, taking a suggestion from P. Lynn Green. That same change was inserted in a provision covering the town contracting with other fire departments for services, such as with the Bennington Rural Fire Department, which is operated as a fire district.

The question was raised of whether in the future the Bennington Fire Department might have trouble finding enough volunteers and then need paid personnel, but Hurd said that has not been a problem. He said the company has about 60 members.

The committee also agreed Wednesday to hold a televised public information session Sept. 27, with charter consultant James Barlow expected to give a presentation and address questions from residents.

Public hearings on the committee’s proposals will be scheduled in mid-October and mid-November, members decided, and their goal is to report to the Selectboard in December.

The committee, which is meeting Wednesday mornings at the town offices, also is taking questions or comments during meetings and has a section on the Bennington town website providing information and allowing for online comments from residents.

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