Some town residents cast a skeptical eye at city’s intentions
By Jennifer Eisenbart
As far as Burlington Mayor Bob Miller can figure out, it’s the best the city and the town of Burlington have cooperated in recent memory.
With the city and town Fire Departments as well as the Burlington Area Rescue Squad all looking for ways to maximize resources and volunteer membership, that may seem like a no-brainer – the idea the three groups can find better ways to work together.
And yet, while the Town of Burlington Board of Supervisors on Jan. 10 unanimously agreed to pay for 25 percent of a $22,705 study to find out how the departments can work better together – and the City of Burlington Council gave its unanimous approval to pay for the study Tuesday night – it is clear that there is still animosity on the part of some town residents.
At the Jan. 10 Town Board meeting, the board listened to Rescue Squad Capt. Brian Zwiebel make an impassioned plea for help because of the decreased numbers in the squad.
If there was a better way for the three organizations to be working together, Zwiebel said, “he was all for it.”
The Town Board didn’t disagree.
“We have a lot of people who basically take the rescue squad and the fire (department) for granted, that they’re going to be there,” said Town Chairman Ralph Rice.
The study – which will be done by McGrath Consulting Group – would allow all of the groups to stay ahead of possible problems.
Dennis Lynch, a member of the Rescue Squad’s Board of Directors, and City Administrator Kevin Lahner were also in the audience for that meeting, as was City Fire Chief Dick Lodle.
“We’re looking at what’s best for both communities going forward,” Lodle said. “Rather than be reactive, how can we be proactive?”
An objective study, from someone outside of the situation, he said, would be helpful.
However, a small group of Town residents didn’t see it that way. Irene Bialas first questioned whether the study would be published and available for citizen comments, then questioned whether everything the three organizations hoped to have addressed was in the contract with McGrath.
Dan Buse was more blunt, saying everyone knows the City needs a new fire station, and wanted to know how much the town is “going to get stuck with.”
That group of residents also directly used the word that Town Board and city staff seemed to be avoiding – the word “merger.”
Buse said any merger would likely cost the town money, and to just keep the mutual aid system, which worked fine in his opinion.
Zwiebel pointed out that no one wanted to “lose the name that is on their front door.”
Town Board member Tyson Fettes said several communities around Burlington spend thousands to provide the services, and in Burlington, they are cost free, essentially, due to the volunteer aspect. As a result, “we’re looking to find ways to keep our costs down and stay ahead of the curve.”
At the heart of the problem is that volunteer component. In particular, daytime calls are causing problems because volunteers aren’t as free to leave work as they have been in the past. The study would look into “greater cooperative opportunities.”
And, as Town Board member Jeff Lang pointed out, the only real question at the Town Board meeting was whether the Town would pay 25 percent of the study costs.
“And that is the only question we are voting on,” he said. “Not what are we going to be doing with it after it’s done.”
The Rescue Squad will also fund 25 percent of the study, while the city will pay 50 percent. When the item came up for discussion at the Committee of the Whole meeting for City Council Tuesday night, one of the big concerns was whether the town would agree.
“I don’t want to spend the money and then have someone say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’” said Alderman Tom Vos. For his part, Lahner admitted that there would likely be resistance to the idea of a merger, and that McGrath wouldn’t put the recommendation in if that was the case.
And yet, Vos said, he could see the bigger picture.
“I hope people aren’t short-sighted on what the long-term goal is,” Vos said. “The long-term goal is good firefighting and rescue response. I don’t want to see it come to a time where we have nothing.”