“We will explain and answer questions until there aren’t any,” explained commission Chairman Luke Lyons. He added that the Aug. 10 public information session would be run with total transparency -- the commission has nothing to hide. “We’re an open book here.”
In an unusual move, more than 30 people crowded into Gardiner’s Main Street firehouse to attend a meeting of the Fire District commissioners. Normally, those meetings might tease out a meager attendance of four or five souls.
Chairman Lyons said that, for now, the fire commissioners were going to hold onto the original election results, which authorizes them to buy the truck.
“Yes, this is the biggest expenditure we’ve ever made in this department. That said, we need this vehicle,” he said. “We want to do this the right way.”
Gardiner does not have a system of fire hydrants throughout the town. When firefighters go to put out a fire, they have only the amount of water they bring with them or can scrounge up from nearby sources and often lay their hoses into a nearby river or lake. But over the years, many of those standby watering holes have run dry. The $500,000 truck has a 2,800-gallon holding capacity and would be able to cart water wherever it was needed.
“The major goal is to put more water on wheels,” the chairman said.
While there weren’t many voters who turned up, that number isn’t out of line with usual low voter turnouts for fire votes. In fact, it was a bit on the high side. “That’s one of the highest vote tallies we’ve ever had,” Lyons said.
In 1992, the record for most voters ever to attend a fire district vote was set at 128 when a referendum to buy a $250,000 truck was on the ballot. Adjusted for inflation, that truck would cost about $400,000 in 2011 dollars, making the large pumper truck in question one of the most expensive things the firefighters have ever requested.
The commission members said their lawyer had advised them not to vacate the results of the June 14 election. Chairman Lyons said if that happened it could create a precedent.
“How many times are we going to vacate a vote because one group doesn’t like how it turned out?” he said.
According to the commissioners, the purchase also won’t represent a huge spike in taxes for Gardiner residents -- the commissioners would be taking money from an equipment reserve fund that has been steadily saving money for about a decade.
What the public had to say
Among those 30 or so people who showed up for the meeting were a mixture of critics, elected officials, laypeople, firefighters and EMTs. A good deal of them spoke to the commission.
Raymond Smith, a critic of how the election was held, was at the meeting. “You are entirely right, and the vote was held,” he said to the commission, adding that voters -- even those who did show up -- were poorly informed about what they were voting on. “I voted -- and I didn’t know anything.”
Smith said he felt the $500,000 was totally out of context for most people. Is that the best purchase possible, or was there another option that could have worked that didn’t cost half a million bucks, he asked.
“It’s really almost criminal,” he said. “We’re in the dark -- and it’s our money.”
Deputy Supervisor Warren Wiegand also spoke. “I acknowledge that it was legal,” Wiegand said of the vote, but he asked the fire commissioners to think about other options than just a public information session.
The deputy supervisor asked them to consider holding a new election after the Aug. 10 public information session.
Former town Supervisor Carl Zatz, who is running for a new term as supervisor, also said that the commission should consider redoing the election once more people knew what is at stake.
“I recognize that you haven’t had this kind of crowd to your votes,” he said. Zatz said he felt like the intense interest on the fire district now reflected a changed paradigm -- taxpayers have less money and they’ll now scrutinize every expense. “You woke a sleeping giant and things are going to change.”
Chairman Lyons said that the commission would consider holding another vote depending on what they heard at the public information session. However, he stressed that right now the Fire District would abide by that vote authorizing them to buy the new truck.
David Sides, a Gardiner resident, also had some criticism about the vote and how it was held. Based on what he heard from the commissioners, he said he was satisfied -- albeit with one caveat: “Only because we’re going to have that other meeting.”
Sides said he thought the commissioners were doing things out of order -- people should have been informed earlier. “It should have been before the vote.”
One of the things that has come out of the $500,000 truck debate has been an intense focus on the commission itself. Chairman Lyons noted that at least two seats would be up for election come this December.
Sides said he’d possibly consider a run for the Fire Commission.
On June 14, the fire district held a special election for voters in Gardiner. During that election, 49 people voted yes to buy the new fire engine, but 43 people voted no.
Critics, like Smith and Marc Alexander, wrote letters to the editor to this paper complaining that with only 93 voters in attendance and very low visibility the commissioners could have done much more to make the public aware that the vote was even occurring.
A sign outside the firehouse, they pointed out, had an advertisement for country line dancing classes rather than for the $500,000 vote taking place indoors.
Chairman Lyons responded to the rumors and bad blood building about the June 14 vote in an exclusive interview with this paper, saying that the vote had been publicized on the Gardiner town website and also as a legal notice in four local newspapers.
Lyons also pointed out that the sign was controlled by the Gardiner Fire Department -- not the Fire District. For many people unfamiliar with how the system works, that distinction is lost. However, district’s civilian commissioners act as the chief financial officers for the firefighters. The district owns the machines and the commissioners work with the chief, checking on his spending requests to make sure they’re reasonable. The department stays out of finance and is made of the firefighters themselves.
As for that sign, the chairman said they’d worked out a deal with the department to use it to announce their upcoming events.
To get involved with the fire commission, you can attend their meetings at the firehouse on Main Street. The next regularly scheduled meeting will happen after that public information session on Aug. 24 at 8 p.m. The public information session is also at the firehouse and will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 10.