Bridgton selectmen reject hiring new fire inspector

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

After months of wrangling and a reversal on a legal opinion, Bridgton’s Board of Selectmen finally decided Tuesday not to hire a new fire inspector. Instead, the board voted 5-0 to give member Doug Taft’s suggestion a try, and see if there is anyone currently on the ranks of the 62-member Bridgton Fire Department willing to assume the responsibilities of the job.

“I’ve gone over this and over this and over this, and I just cannot in my good conscience justify this (fire inspector) position,” Taft said. He doesn’t see why someone with the department wouldn’t be willing or able to undergo the initial training and then take on the part time, 10-12 hour-a-week position — especially providing they’d be paid $16 an hour.

In making its decision, the board overruled the opinion of Fire Chief Glen Garland, who said he had “very grave concerns” about his department’s ability of “doing anything more than what we’re doing now, which is answering complaints.” Both Garland and Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz believe strongly that if Bridgton is to continue with its volunteer call department, it needs an experienced, trained fire inspector to assist the fire chief in the myriad of ongoing administrative tasks faced by a town of its size.

“I don’t see where that time is coming from,” Garland said. “My guys are stretched to the limits (with existing trainings) . . . and they have their own lives.”

Garland, who is paid a stipend of $11,068 a year based on a 15-hour work week, also works for the Portland Fire Department. At the board’s Jan. 8 meeting, Garland said he actually puts in an average of 32 hours a week in Bridgton on administrative work as fire chief, not counting call-out hours.

“The chief is giving you an eye-opener,” said Berkowitz on Jan. 8, when there was a much more lengthy debate over the fire inspector position. “The stipends are allowing you to operate an all fire department,” but Garland’s stipend, as well as the $4,140 a year stipends for the assistant chief and four deputy chiefs, don’t accurately reflect the number of hours the men actually work to keep the department running, he said.

“We are fortunate we haven’t had to go to a professional fire department,” Berkowitz added. Board member Bob McHatton said residents ought to know what was really driving the debate over the fire inspector’s position: that, he said, “We’re on the starting line of having a paid fire department.”

When Garland was told after the vote Tuesday to seek out someone in his department who might be willing to take on the fire inspector training and responsibilities, providing they would be paid, Garland said, “I have my serious doubts. But I’ll ask. That’s all I can do.”

On Jan. 8, Garland had said that currently he has only one person on the department certified to do inspections. “The guys don’t pursue that (fire inspection) training the way they do the training in other areas,” more directly tied to fighting fires, Garland said. “There’s only so many things we can force the volunteers (to do) before they say I’m not doing this.”

Taft responded at that time by saying, “Going through garbage bags wasn’t why I became a police officer, but it became part of the duties I had to do.”

Garland said it seemed to him that hiring a fire inspector was a better use of funds than paying someone to sit at a fire station waiting for a call, as is the case with paid fire departments.

Funds for the $6,656 a year fire inspector position were approved by voters last June, but it wasn’t until early winter that the board was asked to authorize the hiring. The delay was caused by Garland’s need to draw up a list of job responsibilities, which took him longer than expected. The fire inspector’s duties, as envisioned by Garland in consultation with Berkowitz, would not only involve inspecting commercial properties, but also inspecting substandard housing properties in town.

The original reason why the position was seen as needed was to help the Planning Board evaluate the town’s capacity to provide fire protection for new subdivision proposals. Because of Garland’s schedule, he wasn’t always available to attend Planning Board meetings.

When the hiring question first came up, and the board appeared poised not to fill the position, Berkowitz sought and received an opinion from the Maine Municipal Association stating that the board could not go against filling a position that had been approved by voters. However, selectmen questioned that opinion, saying the MMA wasn’t aware that the position had not been approved as a separate line item by voters.

Selectmen told Berkowitz to ask the MMA for a second opinion based on that clarification, and after Berkowitz did so, the MMA reversed itself, saying the town meeting vote, since it had presented the fire department budget in a “lump-sum” format, had not obligated the board to hire a fire inspector.

 

 

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